Birding Costa Rica: Arenal and Hanging Bridges

Arenal Volcano

Once I found myself unemployed last year, Steve and I immediately put together a 24-day birding trip to Costa Rica. It was the longest time I’d ever been away on holiday. I knew I wanted to take some time before I went back to work, but I didn’t know if that would be just a few months, or a year, or maybe just not go back at all. I was still feeling the sting of being kicked to the curb, and going on a quest to find birds in a tropical location seemed to be the anecdote I needed.

Plus, we bought a new mirrorless camera we wanted to try out. As you recall, we had to replace the lens we broke in France last spring and ended up buying completely new gear. I’m sure we could have tried it out in Texas, but we think the equipment deserved a good first-run in Costa Rica. And good news for you, this post has some lovely bird photos.

(The camera is an Olympus E-M1 Mark III; the lens is a Leica 100-400, but actually tele-converts x2 through some sort of digital magic with the new camera. As you can tell, we’re still complete novices with our camera equipment.)

We flew into San Jose, stayed the night at one of the airport hotels and the following morning journeyed up into the mountains to Lake Arenal, which sits beneath the majestic Arenal Volcano. We stayed three nights at Hotel Linda Vista near La Fortuna, and when we stepped out on our balcony, we beheld magnificent views of both the lake and the volcano. The hotel was nice with a pool and restaurant on the property. If you’re looking to visit this area, I highly recommend that you find a hotel that has a restaurant. It gets dark early (around 5:30 pm) and there’s not any street lighting, so you’d be navigating the twisty roads in the dark if you went out looking for other restaurants and bars. (Traveling around in the dark can be done, of course, but you can gauge how adventurous you want to be.)

Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

The hotel helped us pre-arrange a birding tour at nearby Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. The park attracts over 400 bird species on its 650 hectares, 250 of which are under reserve protection of the tropical rainforest.

Our bird guide led our group of six through the park on the 2-mile hike, pointing out birds and butterflies. Because I’m a slow hiker, I’m typically at the end of the group with Steve who is there to make sure that I don’t get left behind or wander off in the wrong direction. I loved the trails at Mistico. They were well maintained and in some areas paved, making it a leisurely hike. I didn’t have to scramble across rocks or worry about sliding down a muddy hillside.

At one point, the group was ahead of me and fixated on a bird on the left side of the trail. The guide could hear but not see it, so everyone, including Steve, was gathered around him to try to get a glance at the bird. I had no idea what the bird was because I, as usual, was behind the pack, taking my time.

And then I saw it. Everyone had just walked by it, but they were looking to their left and totally missed what I saw in the forest on the right.

“Guys,” I said in a whispery yell so not to scare it away.

No one turned around.

“Guys!” I was still using my whispery yelling voice.

They turned around.

“A trogon! Right here.”

They came rushing toward me as I pointed into the forest with my right hand. Honestly, I don’t know how they missed its bright yellow breast gleaming in the open as it perched on the branch. Sometimes it’s okay to be the slow one at the back.

Black-throated Trogon

A plethora of birds

The highlight of the park is its six hanging bridges, which immerse you into the canopy of the forest. I’m not afraid of heights, so they weren’t a big deal. On the second bridge we came upon a huge mixed flock of over 100 songbirds. Our guide was pointing and calling out birds as fast as an auctioneer. I’d see one, then there was another and another and another. Not only did I not have time to get my camera on any bird, but it was hard to single them out with my binoculars. So I decided to just stand there and look at them with my bare eyes. They flew up, down and around us and it felt like we were in a little tornado of birds. After about 15 minutes of that I was feeling the vertigo and walked toward the path at the end of the bridge. I was grateful to reach land and get my bearings, but as unsteady as I had felt, it certainly was thrilling seeing all those birds in such a huge mixed flock.

Hanging out on one of the six hanging bridges at Mistico

If you want to find motmots, this is the place. Just within a few yards of each other we found the Rufous Motmot and then the Broad-billed Motmot. Seeing one right after the other helped me distinguish between the two. It’s not often you get that chance.

Rufous Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot

The Buff-rumped Warbler is a fairly large warbler (around 13 cm long). Several of them hopped out onto the pathway and didn’t mind that we were there. Our guide explained that the warbler tends to nest on sloping banks next to paths or streams, which is why he wasn’t surprised to see them on the trail, fanning their bright tail feathers to startle insects. They seemed very accustomed to humans. It reminded me of the finches in the Galapagos that fluttered on the ground near my feet, unafraid and unfazed by my presence.

Buff-rumped Warbler

The Orange-chinned Parakeet was a treat to see and I was also happy to see the Bananaquit, which I’ve seen before in the other tropical locations, but they’re always fun to watch as they sip out nectar from flowers.

Orange-chinned Parakeet
Bananaquit female

Tennessee Warbler

The Tennessee Warbler was everywhere during our Costa Rica trip, and there he was (below) giving us great views on our first day of birding there. While most people might roll their eyes at seeing the same bird over and over on a birding trip (particularly when there’s so many other tropical birds around as eye candy), I was excited to see this bird at every stop along our way in Costa Rica.

Tennessee Warbler

After we returned from Costa Rica I was working on an essay about our trip and how I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and the Tennessee Warbler made an appearance in that story–what we call an objective correlative in writing. After I had polished a draft of my story, I took a brain break and opened my Twitter account where Frank Izaguirre had just posted a genius video of the Tennessee Warbler’s migration from Costa Rica to the Boreal Forest in Canada using the famous scene in the movie Rocky. Watching Rocky run through Philadelphia to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” as he says goodbye to all the Costa Rican birds and then is joined by other migrating birds, had me in in stitches. I’ve watched the video a gazillion times and I still think it’s hilarious.

More posts on our Costa Rica adventure to come!

This is not a sponsored post, nor did I receive any compensation or anything free or discounted in exchange for any of the businesses linked to in this post. I’m linking to them because I honestly had a great experience with them and hope it helps you as you plan your birding trip to Costa Rica.