After one day on a recent visit to Costa Rica, my impression was: Where are all the birds?

My friend Mike has seen 798 species of birds in that Central American country. He’s been working on that list for years. It seemed to me even more difficult than I had imagined.

Birds there were, certainly. Many hummingbirds, dozens of a species known as green violet-ears. (Curiously, the first time I saw that species was in La Crosse, Wis.) Other species, however, were present in two or threes. My expectations leaned toward at least double figures.

We were spending our first three days at a lodge about 6,500 feet up in the central part of the country. That evening, a large group of bird tourists filled the dining room. It was easy to pick out the guide: He was less than half the age of everyone else.

I intercepted him at the dessert table. (Yes, an entire table covered with dessert; we ate well throughout the week.) I explained my puzzlement.

“Costa Rica has bird intensity,” he said, “but not bird density.”

There are many species to be seen there — hundreds and hundreds — but generally speaking, not large numbers of any individual.

Costa Rica has a diverse species list because it has diverse habitats. The country runs from sea level to 12,000-foot mountains. Habitat changes with elevation. You don’t have to travel far or hike high to find change.

It’s a small country, though, so there isn’t a great deal of any particular type of habitat. Only so many birds comfortably fit there, so to speak. There is competition for scarce resources.

Making the trip

Most birders visit the country on tours. That is highly advised. First, the guide, who loads you into a van or mini-bus early in the a.m., knows where to go. Second, you don’t have to drive.

You don’t want to drive. Costa Rican roads wind through valleys. When there’s a city in the way, the roads — even main highways — go through the middle of the city, two lanes through downtown and residential neighborhoods, always with turns, stop signs, stoplights, big trucks and bicycles. Plus, drivers in Costa Rica are known for their courage. Or is it daring? It’s both, actually.

Those are the paved roads. Then you get to roads climbing into hills or mountains, and often other roads, which are dirt: rocky, rutted and extremely slippery in wet weather. Often you can look out of the window on either side of the car at a vertical view, the bottom way, way, way down there. If you rolled off the edge, habitat change would flash by.

Front-row seat

The hummingbirds are incredible, in variety and beauty. Minnesotans, with the lone lovely ruby-throated hummer, are cheated in this regard.

Hummingbirds of a dozen species were constants around the many sugar-water feeders hung on the grounds of both lodges we visited. At the second, we could sit on the porch or the balcony to watch these birds come to feed. (Coffee or a glass of wine in hand — that’s my kind of birding.)

The other feeding stations were stocked with bananas. Just bananas. One strip of peel pulled away, the fruit then impaled on nails on feeder posts or platforms. Several species of oriole and tanager fed there. Oropendolas came in, with brown jays, ant-tanagers, salutators, aracaris, chachaclacas, a yellow-thighed finch, bananaquits, one slaty flowerpiercer, and more.

The daytime temperatures where we stayed that first week in January hovered around 72.

It was grand good fun, a lovely place to visit, and a lovely place to find birds, just not always in quantity.

 

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his ongoing conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut. If you go

Our first stop was La Savegre Mountain Lodge, the second Rancho Naturalista. They were chosen for us by Kevin Easley, whom I met in Texas two years ago. Easley is a guide, and owner of a touring agency, Costa Rica Gateway (costaricagateway.com). Our cost for seven nights was modest, I thought: two people, lodging, food and all transportation (excepting air) for just over $2,200 total. (Rates vary by number of participants.)