Birdwatching in Costa Rica

Words: Seth Inman

In the lower folds of Poás Volcano’s foothills, overlooking the city of Alajuela and Costa Rica’s Central Valley, Xandari Resort & Spa offers travelers what Forbes Magazine has called “a mountainside slice of paradise.”

The forty-acre property includes diverse tropical gardens and a forest reserve with several miles of trails that lead to multiple waterfalls—one of which is between sixty and seventy feet high. A hundred and thirty bird species have been reported on the resort’s eBird hotspot, but Xandari is a mere twenty minutes away from the country’s main international airport.

Hummingbirds and tanagers flit year-round amongst the flowering bushes and fruiting trees that surround all 24 villas and the open, veranda-style restaurant, which offers an outstanding view, particularly at night. A creative Costa Rican menu utilizes fruits and vegetables grown on-site, from arugula and cherry tomatoes to yucca and plantains.

Blue-and-white Swallows commonly swoop down by the sunset pool (one of three saline-treated pools on property) to sip water and hunt insects at a calm spot overlooking coffee and forest with a backdrop of the Central Valley.

Strange vocalizations of the Montezuma Oropendola, diverse tunes from the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and eerie whistles from Rufous-and-white Wrens drift up from the woods below, while various species of raptor soar thermals in the skies above.

The nearby trails offer secluded areas from which to spot White-eared Ground-Sparrows foraging among the leaf litter, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers chattering in the dense vine tangles, and Long-tailed Manakins performing their mating rituals under the lush canopy. To say nothing of all the migratory warblers and other families of birds that find Xandari’s forest and gardens to be a little oasis in the greater overwintering haven of Costa Rica!

An orange grove, with its neighbouring chicken coop and goat pen, is a popular area for the local community of Blue-crowned Motmots and one of the resident pairs of Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, as well as three types of saltator that fly through almost daily for their breakfast.

With the resort’s plant-a-tree program, guests have planted over 500 trees throughout the property over the last eight years, and compost from pruned vegetation nourishes both the edible garden plants and the natural forest in certain disposal pockets that make good foraging ground for Gray-necked Wood-Rails.

At dusk, calls from the Common Pauraque and Laughing Falcons echo across the hills, and if you’re lucky and have a good flashlight you might spot a Mottled Owl or Tropical Screech-Owl, as well as the cute but deadly Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

Dawn choruses resound with Rufous-naped Wren chatter and whistles from Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, often interspersed with Yellow-throated Euphonia and Barred Antshrike song depending on the location of your villa.

While eating a complimentary breakfast of tropical fruits and freshly baked banana bread and muffins, flocks of raucous parrots or parakeets, swirling packs of swifts, and sallying flycatchers can be seen from the restaurant.

One of the advantages of being in the Central Valley is the proximity to several key Costa Rican birding hotspots that can be visited as day trips. Xandari Resort is just an hour away from Poás Volcano National Park (222 species on eBird), Carara National Park (466 species, including the famous Scarlet Macaw), and the Tirimbina Rainforest Center private reserve (356); it’s also two hours away from La Selva Biological Station (532, and Costa Rica’s #1 in species count) and Tapantí National Park (431).

These popular birding destinations are perfect places to find the exciting tropical species like trogons, toucans, and tanagers that are more rare around Alajuela and San José.

Costa Rica’s dry season, or summer, runs from December to April and corresponds with the North American bird migration, so despite the higher rates on hotels throughout the country it makes for better birding. The rainy season lends to more affordable prices given the lower amount of tourists in the country, and often the mornings are sunny and clear before the afternoon downpours.

Most Costa Ricans, or Ticos, who work in the tourism industry speak English and are quite friendly. With nearly 900 species recorded in a country two-thirds the size of Scotland, Costa Rica is a top candidate for any bird-watcher’s holiday destination, casual or avid!