Gazing into the clear blue sky, I see my first
birds in Costa Rica. Green and squawking, the
parrots soar over the runway at Juan
Santamaria International Airport near San José.
Six hours earlier we’d left Toronto in a deep
January freeze. My husband and I have arrived
in this small Central American country to
celebrate our recent retirements. Friends had
invited us to their house on the Pacific coast.
The pandemic delayed us. And no amount of
planning prepared us for the world of birds we
were about to experience.
Renowned as home to over 800 bird species,
Costa Rica punches way above its weight for
birdwatching. We arrive with only my father’s
old binoculars between us; no fancy cameras or
guidebooks. I don’t even know how to say
“bird” in Spanish. The family next to me is
fluent, so I ask. El pájaro, the mom replies, or la
ave. Two words for bird. ¡Claro!
I call myself an emerging birder. My interest
began in 2019 when I was Acting Curator of
Colborne Lodge Museum in High Park. The
brilliance of a Scarlet Tanager startled me one
spring afternoon. Summer encounters with
long-lensed photographers searching for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds amused me. The sight of Red-tailed Hawks soaring above was
thrilling. I discovered a parallel universe of
bird life in the city that was new to me. The
sheer joy of being distracted by birds wa
uplifting. I was curious. My new motto
became “show up, look up”.
Day two in Costa Rica, we wake early to the
sound of rocks being dropped on the tin roof of
our cabin. Lesson one: never sleep under an
almond tree when Scarlet Macaws are feasting.
Their beaks are strong enough to crack the
hard shells being discarded overhead. The
further south we travel along the Pacific coast,
the more we encounter these iconic birds. Our
favourite soda (open-air restaurant) in Palmar
Norte is a gathering place for Scarlet Macaws.
They flock by the dozens in the almond trees
along the highway. Their shrieks are alarming.
According to a local, sightings of this species
were rare 25 years ago. But a commitment to
planting almond trees in the southern coastal
region has helped bring them back.
Our hosts, Les and Jane Harris, call their
home “Tucán Tango” and their guest house
Casa Aracari (a toucan). High in the rain forest,
this is a birder’s paradise. Mornings start with
a chorus of bird songs so exotic and unfamiliar
I’m compelled to get up at 5:30 a.m. Scanning
the tree canopy, my binoculars pick up colours,
shapes and sizes of unfamiliar birds. Jane
provides me with a well-used, laminated bird
guide and helps me identify local varieties. The
Great Kiskadee is a regular on the contorted
branches of the Guarumo tree. The operatic call
of the Montezuma Oropendola pierces the din
of the “bloody cicadas” who fall like hail at
night onto the patio.
My bird brain is easily distracted by new
sightings. Is that velvety black-and-red bird a
tanager? Could that be a Northern Flicker or
another member of the woodpecker family on
the Lipstick Palm? Who’s here for the winter?
Who’s a year-round resident? What is that
beautiful bird with a sapphire-blue head, rubyred breast and emerald-green wings? If being a birder means identifying and listing all my
sightings, I’m in over my head. I need professional help.
Initially help comes in the form of a local
teenager, the son of Les and Jane’s electrician.
Joshua arrives at 7 a.m. wearing flip flops, a
wide-brimmed hat and a big smile. He is our
guide for a walk on the steep, dirt roads that
snake through the rain forest. Like many
young tico men we meet, he knows the bird
and plant life well. He speaks English and
carries a digital camera with a flip-out video
screen to share images. A career as a guide has
great potential given Costa Rica’s tourismdriven economy.
Joshua spots our first bird, a Yellowthroated Toucan, which is a subspecies
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, reminiscent of
the bird on the Fruit Loops cereal box. In fact,
there are six perched in the trees. He identifies
a Scarlet-rumped Tanager (subspecies
Cherrie’s) that flashes past us. Red-lored
Parrots announce our arrival while giant
iridescent Blue Morphos butterflies follow us
like Tinker Bell as we climb. A soft rain falls
and sweat pours down our faces making
binocular use difficult.
A black Crested Guan sits high in a tree.
Joshua shares that until recently these turkeysized birds were hunted for food. He whistles
a call-and-response tune with hidden
songbirds. Warblers? Wrens? They’re playing
hard to get. We are soaked. His uncle picks
him up on a motorcycle for his next gig, a 9
a.m. boat tour.
Early the next morning we drive 40 km to
meet Oscar for a three-hour cruise on the
Sierpe River, an estuary dotted with mauvecoloured water hyacinths. A university student,
he is as passionate about the history of his
country as he is knowledgeable about the
natural life along the river. As soon as our
pontoon motorboat departs, Oscar begins
pointing out wildlife we would never have
spotted. I brought a notebook to catalogue our
sightings: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Barethroated Tiger-Heron (eater of baby crocodiles),
Green Heron, White Ibis. All are active in the
mangrove swamp. Black and Turkey Vultures
crowd the shore feasting on a fish carcass while
dozens of Squirrel Monkeys swing through the
Next, we catch sight of a Baltimore Oriole,
Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Egrets (Snowy,
Cattle and Great), and two long-toed tropical
wading birds, a Northern Jacana and a Purple
Gallinule. Howler Monkeys are eating fruit in
the taller trees (and thankfully not howling).
We pass a modest riverside cabin where Oscar
grew up with his six siblings. His lifelong love
of the Sierpe region prepared him for this job
along with a formal education that made him
fluent in Spanish, English and German.
I miss a Barn Owl roosting under a bridge as
we head back to the town docks. American
Crocodiles on the bank are easier to spot. At
least three-metres long, they look like mud
sculptures until they slip into the murky river
with ease. While some worry about sharks, if
you’re on a beach with an estuary in Costa Rica, be wary of crocodiles.
Further down the Osa peninsula, near
Puerto Jiménez, Les introduces us to Chris
Castles, a New Zealander dedicated to macaw
conservation. For almost a decade, Chris ran a
successful breeding program for Great Green
Macaws on the Caribbean coast. We arrive at
breakfast time and join him inside the large
aviaries housing rescued Scarlet Macaws.
Some birds are injured and others were
abandoned when it became illegal to own
macaws as pets in Costa Rica. Chris fills large
metal bowls with fresh fruits, sunflower seeds
(from Canada) and hard green almonds. He
plans to develop a wildlife education centre for
In this land of rough roads and beautiful
beaches, our most remote destination is Las
Caletas Lodge. The only way in is by boat from
nearby Drake Bay (as in Sir Francis, the 16thcentury privateer). We prepare for our first
“wet landing”. When Captain Carlos says “go”,
we jump in the shallow water and hope a wave
doesn’t knock us off our feet before scrambling
to the beach. A German woman nearly drowns
the next day during an ill-timed landing. The
lodge is a place of hammocks, hummingbirds
and early morning boat trips to Corcovado
National Park or Caño Island. We opt to
explore the local trails and beaches. Then
Daniel, our host, suggests a night walk in the
rain forest. We’re assured the trails are “flat.
Freiner and his 17-year-old son, Joey, meet
us at 8 p.m. Sporting headlamps and high
rubber boots (mandatory tico footwear), they
lead us on a path that climbs into the dark,
humid forest. For two hours of up-and-down
trails that cross a mountain stream several
times (I get a soaker with one misstep), we
persevere on a gruelling journey to discover
secrets of the jungle at night. Joey spots a nondeadly scorpion, a “Jesus Christ” lizard (that
walks on water), a glass frog the size of a
thumbnail and, amazingly, two rare Trogón
birds asleep on branches within reach.
Meanwhile, his father scans our path for
venomous snakes and other wildlife. He
recently filmed a juvenile puma hunting in the
During the tour Freiner offers survival tips
in case one gets lost in the rain forest. After
identifying edible palm-heart stalks and berries
from the prickly palm, he peels back the outer
bark of a large termites’ nest and scoops a
handful of live termites into his mouth. “They
taste like celery and are full of protein!” he
assures us. In the end, our walk is an
unforgettable experience even with the hills,
humidity, insect bites, my water-filled boot
and ‘snacks’. Other guests at the lodge hear
we’ve done a night walk and ask if it’s worth it.
Our last days are spent in the San Gerardo
de Dota district, in the mountain range south
of San José that runs like a spine down the
centre of Costa Rica. When we leave “Tucán
Tango” in the morning, it’s 31°C. The crack in
the windshield of our four-wheel-drive car is
getting longer, thanks to the pot-holed, dirt
roads on which we’ve driven. Now we’re
climbing into the cloud forest on a two-lane
highway with hairpin turns. Arriving at
Trogón Lodge in the late afternoon, the
temperature has dropped to 11°C. When we
get up at 4:30 a.m. for our final birdwatching
adventure, it’s 4°C outside. Greivin Gonzalez,
our guide, warns us that as the sun comes up,
it will feel even colder. I’m wearing every
available layer of dry clothes for this excursion
to see a Resplendent Quetzal, the sacred bird of
ancient Mayas and Aztecs.
Greivin drives our group of five to a hillside
location where three ‘paparazzi’ types have
already setup their tripods and cameras. It
feels like a press conference. There’s an edge of
excitement as we all manoeuvre for the best
viewing spot. Greivin calmly explains that it’s
the breeding season and he expects a male to
land on a branch some distance from where
we’re standing before it disappears into the
avocado trees below. My cell phone camera
seems woefully inadequate to capture the
moment. As if reading my mind, he offers to
shoot photos with my phone through his
Our group waits quietly. We get cold.
Greivin hears our bird in the distance. We
softly stamp our feet and try to warm our
hands. He moves the monocular to a better
angle. We follow. He responds with a soft
whistle to the bird’s call. The sun is appearing
on a mountain top. It is colder.
When the vibrantly coloured guest of
honour arrives, his back is to us. Brilliant green
with long, streaming tail feathers, this exquisite
bird seems like an imaginary creature. Many
hands shove phones at Greivin who patiently
takes amazing photos through his lens. A
moment later, the Resplendent Quetzal
disappears into the trees. Will that be our only
sighting? He’s left us wanting more.
Greivin scans the forest and finds him again.
Photos reveal the bird’s emerald-feathered face,
scarlet breast and white inner tail feathers. I’m
witnessing one of the most beautiful birds in
the world in its habitat. Breathtaking and
surreal, the show is over. We’re all ready for a
hot breakfast back at the lodge.
Warmth from the wood-burning stoves in
the dining room is as welcome as the plate of
papaya, pineapple and pancakes. Outside,
hummingbirds swarm in bushes bursting with
orange blossoms. I’ve never seen these tiny
birds at rest until now when an emeraldcoloured hummingbird (possibly a Lesser
Violetear) perches on a branch and sings!
Another birding first.
Costa Rica is a place of surprising
juxtapositions and delights. It’s a country that
abolished the military in the late 1940s and
affectionately calls its squadrons of Brown
Pelicans “the Costa Rican air force”. The most
colourful birds often make the most raucous
sounds while the national bird, the Claycolored Thrush, is a drab species chosen for its
gorgeous song. I admire a country that features
birds on its paper money—Costa Rica shows a
Volcano Hummingbird on its 20,000 colones
note. Then I remember we had birds on our
currency issued 30 or so years ago, and still
have our “loonie” coin.
Just before we left for Costa Rica, I filmed
our neighbour pushing his snowblower
through the drifts in our backyard. I panned
from the plumes of snow billowing behind him
to our full birdfeeder. I can’t resist sharing the
video with ticos whom we meet. They are
stunned by all the snow but what really
astonishes them is that birds actually winter in
Toronto. It’s a good reminder that it is time for
this ‘snowbird’ to head home and refill the
Miles note: This article comes from the Toronto Ornithological Club newsletter.
For more information on the club visit torontobirding.ca