Where to go Birding- Costa Rica or Panama?

By patrick on

Costa Rica and Panama are two of the most popular Central American countries for birding. You can also find wonderful birding in other parts of Central America but the level of infrastructure, stability, and ease of access to good sites have put Panama and Costa Rica on the birding destination bucket list. Since both nations are similar in a number of ways and share many of the same birds, it can be hard to pick between the two for a birding vacation?

The ideal trip would include a birding extravaganza in both countries but since most of us only have time to visit one country, we are left with a tough choice. We hope that the following information will help you make up your mind:

A few similarities:

  • Number of bird species: Both countries have lists that top 900 species but Panama has more, mostly because of various species found in the wild Darien region of eastern Panama. This means that similar numbers of bird species are seen during a two or three week trip whether visiting Panama or Costa Rica (anywhere from 300 to 500 plus species).
  • Lots of exotic birds: Both countries boast healthy populations of toucans, parrots, parakeets, tanagers, and other exciting birds.

    Black-mandibled Toucans are fairly common in both countries.

  • Experienced birding guides: A number of excellent birding guides live and work in Panama and Costa Rica.
  • Birding lodges: Panama is home to the famous Canopy Lodges while Costa Rica is home to Bosque del Rio Tigre, Rancho Naturalista, and a few other places that cater to birders.
  • Resplendent Quetzal: Although there are more sites for this spectacular bird in Costa Rica, it is also readily seen at a few highland sites in western Panama.

    Resplendent Quetzal .

    This quetzal was digiscoped by Lloyd Cripe, one of our Panama Bird Field Guide app contributors. See more of his images at his site.

  • Bird photography: Opportunities are pretty similar in both countries, including a few sites with feeders that facilitate photography. That said, Costa Rica has at least two places that specialize on bird photography with fantastic results. Those two sites are the Nature Pavilion and Laguna del Lagarto.
  • Field guides and bird finding information: Excellent field guides are available for both countries in book form and as birding apps. There is also a good bird finding book available for each country.
  • Spectacular raptor migration and hummingbird feeders: The river of raptors passes through both countries and both also have several sites with hummingbird feeders (perhaps more so in Costa Rica).

    A male Green-crowned Brilliant visits a feeder in Costa Rica.

Some advantages of birding in Costa Rica:

  • Great Tinamous and Great Curassow: Both of these species (and possibly other guans) are easier to see at more sites in Costa Rica than other places in their range, including Panama. This is a result of years of adequate protection in national parks and reserves.

    A male Great Curassow from Costa Rica.

  • Jabiru,Green Ibis, and Sunbittern: All of these are also possible at more places in Costa Rica. The Jabiru is rare but reliable at the right spots, the Sunbittern requires a bit of time at the right places, and Green Ibis is pretty easy at several sites in the country.
  • Unspotted Saw-whet Owl:
    Not easy by any means but yes, now there are good sites for it in Costa Rica!
  • Dry forest species in the northwest:
    Species like Thicket Tinamou, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, White-throated Magpie Jay, and several other species reach the southern limit of their range in western Costa Rica.

    White-throated Magpie Jay

  • Easier access to more highland sites: In general, Costa Rica has easier access to highland sites because most of the country is mountainous.
  • More eco-lodges: Costa Rica has been in the ecotourism business since 1990 or so and shows it with dozens of ecolodge options. Some are more birder friendly than others but there are a lot to choose from and several have local guides with info on roosting owls, target species, etc.
  • Salsa Lizano:
    Most people who try this Costa Rican condiment on their rice and beans become loyal fans.


Benefits of birding in Panama:

  • Harpy Eagle: It’s not like this winged monster is flying all over the country but a staked out nest is often possible in the Darien.
  • Pheasant Cuckoo and Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo: Both of these crazy cuckoos are more regular in Panama than Costa Rica. In fact, Panama is arguably the most reliable place in the world to see the ground cuckoo because Canopy Lodge guides are skilled at finding it in Valle and on the Pipeline Road.
  • Blue Cotinga: Unlike some of those other shining blue cotinga species, this one is regularly seen when birding Panama.

    A gorgeous male Blue Cotinga from Panama digiscoped by Lloyd Cripe.

  • The Darien: One of the last big wilderness areas in Central America, the Darien is also of course fantastic for birding. It might be a challenge to access but there are tours and guides that bring birders there.
  • The Canal Zone: The rainforests of the Canal Zone are one the world’s classic birding sites. The access is also just as good as the birding with one site, Metropolitan Park, being situated in Panama City!
  • Lower population density – more habitat: Less people in more territory than Costa Rica translates to more habitat overall.
  • Cheaper: Although this can’t be said about certain lodges, in general, meals, lodging, and transportation are less expensive in Panama.

At the end of the day, don’t fret too much about deciding between Costa Rica and Panama for birding because you are going to see lots of birds and have a great trip no matter which country you pick.

Whether visiting Costa Rica or Panama for birding, hiking, or adventure, enhance your vacation with our birding apps.

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