“Stop. Shhh. Listen,” the guide whispers. He brings binoculars up to his eyes in a fluid motion. A sharp intake of breath. “Aaahhh… yes! See that long branch there, with the one brown leaf at the end? Look directly below.”
I bring my own binoculars. For a moment it’s just tree branches…then I see it: a pair of Shining Honey Creepers sitting in their nest about 150 feet off the ground. The female is a dull green. But the male is a brilliant blue. He takes off a moment later, and those feathers really do shine in the sunlight.
I’m birdwatching in the Arenal Hanging Bridges private reserve right next to Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano and its namesake lake. The trail passes through dense rain forest. Then small suspension bridges strung over ravines allow you to get up into the tree canopy to see a whole different set of species.
With me is Danny Vega, a 10-year veteran guide with a passion for birding. We’ve been out since daybreak, when birds are most active, and in just an hour or so we’ve seen 20 different species. You can check out part of our morning in the video here.
I don’t describe myself as a “birder.” But I have a few identification guides, a pair of binoculars, and, yes, I’ve just hired a birding guide… Call me an enthusiastic amateur. It’s hard not to be when you live in Costa Rica.
This incredibly biodiverse country has more than 800 species, one of the highest concentrations in the world. And the Arenal region is one of the premier birding spots.
But you don’t need to know your Purple-Crowned Fairies from your Tawny-Capped Euphonias to enjoy birding. It’s something everyone should try at least once. You can watch all the nature TV shows you want. But until you’ve been circled by that aforementioned Fairy, a hummingbird with white belly, green back, and a bright purple head, you haven’t really lived it.
And guided touring makes for a much richer way to experience the natural wonders of Costa Rica. It’s well worth the price of $35 per half-day for a private group.
I know from personal experience that you can walk a short stretch of rain forest and see a bird or two flit by. Go with a guide, and you’ll stop a dozen times and see something amazing. He knows the calls. He knows the trees certain species favor. He knows which birds eat ants, which eat the fruit of that bush…
“All the nature guides are really into it,” Danny says. “We’re passionate naturalists. We do what we love.”
If you’d rather go it alone here are some tips. Go out at daybreak when birds are most active. Stop and listen often—don’t treat the trail as a race. The name of the game is patience. Let the birds come to you.
That’s what Danny and I do on the tallest of the hanging bridges, 150 feet off the ground, when we see a flap of wings in a distant tree.
“That, my friend, is the new bird of the day,” Danny tells me with a grin. We spend the next half-hour observing a Crested Hawk Eagle perched on a branch. A pair of Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans soon lands one tree over.
Danny is explaining how the hawk is a predator of the toucan when it suddenly takes flight. It’s circling the toucans now, once, twice… then disappears into the trees.
It was almost a National Geographic moment, as Danny calls it. (Personally, I’m glad the toucans made it.)
At International Living’s Fast-Track Costa Rica: Lifestyle and Opportunity Conference in November, I’ll share stories about all the best places to visit—and live—in Costa Rica. I look forward to seeing you there and answering any questions you have.