Wildlife Photography in Costa Rica
Back in the fall of 2022, my husband and I decided to take our first international vacation since COVID shut down the world. Costa Rica had long been on our list of places we wanted to see in the Americas due to it's well known natural beauty, biodiversity, and as a potential place to retire to eventually. The Osa Peninsula, on the far southern Pacific coast of the country, was my number one destination within Costa Rica. The other environment I wanted to visit was the Cloud Rainforest, which can be found both northwest and southeast from the capitol of San Jose in the higher altitudes of the mountainous spine that divides the country between Pacific and Caribbean lowlands. And with that we made our plans, and by "we" I mean, I made our plans since I am by far the planner and adventurer in the family. December 2022 we boarded our flight south for a trip filled with exploration and wildlife photography in Costa Rica.
With two weeks in country (started as 12 days planned but I'll get to that), I thought it would be best to start high and work our way lower in elevation, so we started with our Cloud Rainforest destination. When it came to picking a place, I wanted to make sure there would be something for both myself and my husband. While I will sleep in a hovel if it means great photography opportunities, he prefers a few more creature comforts. Both of us prefer not to deal with crowds though. So after a night in San Jose, our driver picked us up and we made the four hour drive to the mountain valley of San Gerardo de Dota.
The roads were actually not nearly as bad along this route as I had been led to believe. Maybe it's because I have lived in Guam, or traveled across Texas, New Mexico, and many other parts of the US where the infrastructure is neglected...but I digress. With as many miles as I put myself through each year, I feel I am usually pretty good at reading the land for beauty even through the windshield. The drive that day was a wonderful introduction to the country, not just the natural beauty as we made our way from the capitol to the rural mountains, but it also gave a glimpse of the culture, people, and tempo of the region.
Arriving at our accommodations, we received a warm welcome and a porter to take our things to our room. Which was about a ten minute hike from the reception, up hill, through the forest. The entire property was beautiful and I could have spent days exploring just the lodge's grounds. Not to be outdone though, the food was also amazing! It is a rare treat when I can photograph and eat well three times a day. How I tell the difference between trips with my husband and those I do solo.
There on the lodge's grounds, I was able to photograph a wide variety of birds (as would become common no matter where I went). These included such beauties as green toucanets, volcano hummingbirds, flame-colored tanagers, and slatey flowerpiercers.
Over the following days, we did a series of both photography and adventure related activities. From hiking waterfall trails to horseback riding and several bird photography sessions where our local guide would teach us about the environment and point out the birds that call it home. Rain or shine we went out. You can't expect to visit a rainforest and just hit pause every time showers come along. It's part of the adventure and we had packed appropriate gear for it as well.
The following are a series of birds that I photographed in the San Gerardo de Dota area.
*Note the composite annotation in the image above. It is not a true composite but the frame I actually captured (seen below) had very little space at the bottom. Utilizing Photoshop's canvas extension fill AI, I was able to add more background to the bottom of the frame, giving my subject more room in the composition. From there I was able to crop into more of a vertical frame. This is something I had heard about but never tried until this image. Any image of mine with excessive processing, such as this, I disclose what I have done as I believe there should be truth in captioning when it comes to more than just developing an image. I hope this transparency helps increase the trust you, the view, has in my work as accurate representations of what I captured with the gear I use unless otherwise noted.
One of the highlight species (as if the white-throated mountain gem wasn't enough) of the region and the one that most visitors come to the area to see is a bird that completely lives up to its name - the Resplendent Quetzal (kets-saul). In the lowest light this bird shimmers with color and vibrancy like nothing I have seen outside of jewels and a very few species in the insect world. Males have long dorsal feathers during mating season and these feathers dance in the breeze. Most days you have to be up very early to see them as once it gets bright out, the birds retreat to the protected darkness of the dense forests. Overcast, slightly misty days give photographers the best opportunities to see these birds in the open if visiting early in the mating season before there are chicks to be constantly fed.
They feed on wild avocados, which look a lot like small green olives, just growing on a very different tree. On private property, some farmers, who have been working to conserve the species, place perches near these natural food sources and allow photographers to photograph the birds from a safe distance. I was thrilled our lodge was able to arrange a session on one of our days for this experience.
From San Gerardo de Dota, we made our way back to the San Jose for a domestic flight down to the Osa Peninsula. This remote region of the country is one of the less visited areas, though it has been gaining popularity in recent years. Access is still a bit tricky as the road network in the area is rough enough that locals don't suggest driving from San Jose to visit, but it is an option. Plan on renting a 4x4 and bringing cash to cover tolls on the way down from the capitol. The two other methods to get there are either by domestic flight (40-60ish min, option we took) or you can take a van/bus to Sierpe before catching a boat taxi to the peninsula. Transportation options also depend on where you are staying while in the Osa. We opted to stay on the northern side in Drakes Bay.
From there it was a series of boat trips out in the morning to access Corcovado National Park, the most biodiverse environment on the planet. With six ranger stations throughout the park, we visited two - Sirena and San Pedrillo. We saw the most tourists of the entire trip when we landed at Sirena. It was kind of mind blowing to be in a relatively far away spot, accessed by boat only, and then have to wait in line for 30min while rangers check permits and ensure no one is bringing in illegal items like single use plastic water bottles and food (even power bars). Food can be carried in other parts but due to the popularity of this station, there have been issues with trash and food scraps left behind by irresponsible tourists, thus the current regulation. Reusable water bottles for the win though!
Corcovado is such a special place. We were able to see all four species of primates that live in Costa Rica there, including the critically endangered spider money and the tiny, endangered, squirrel monkey.
Beyond the primates, there were all sorts of other species seen as well: all sorts of birds, sloths (though none were close enough for a great picture), tapirs, several species of ants, stingless bees, bats, and reptiles.
While on the Osa we also did a night bug walk. Now I have no issue with bugs. My first job ever was actually as a teen in insect research with the USDA. But this was a whole different level. The various frogs were super cool and I was able to capture an obligatory red-eye tree frog image. Might not be as picturesque as some but this frog was not staged and I used the deflected light of our guide's headlamp to capture this picture.
Then there were the cat-eyed snakes. We saw multiple individuals throughout the walk. Personally, I think they are super cute but then again I had snakes as pets growing up so, again, not something that freaks me out. They eat small prey like frogs, beetles, and mice. Yet they are frequently persecuted by locals as they look somewhat similar (I guess, maybe at a glance) to the very feared and venomous Fer-de-lance which also inhabits this region.
But what got me was the focus on arachnids. I like to say I do zero to six legs. Beyond that nah! Yet during that evening we were shown everything from the rather benign trap-door spiders to the highly venomous Brazilian wandering spider and what our guide suspected to be a bark scorpion. Yeah, not my favorite part of the trip, yet I am thankful I did it and saw what I saw and am more knowledgeable for it. We fear what we don't know or understand and I have been working very hard for years now to overcome my fear of arachnids since I work so much in their home.
In too short a time, we were packing up to leave this wonderous piece of the planet. Taking off from the tiny airport with brilliant colored parrots flitting along the perimeter fence, I vowed I will return at some point, sooner than later.
Due to a snafu with the airlines, instead of departing as planned on day 12, we remained in country another day and a half longer than we originally anticipated. Thanks to my good friend Linda, who has traveled to Costa Rica quite a bit, she was able to suggest a local guide out of San Jose. While my husband stayed back at in town with a good book and even better local Costa Rican coffee served at a great little café we had visited the day before, I was shown a new part of the country northwest of San Jose, Sarapiquí, one of the birding meccas of the country.
My guide knew just where to go both for birds and breakfast. We stopped at a truck stop cafeteria but it was great food. Travel eating 101: eat where there are lines of locals. This was one of those places. It also wasn't far from the property where I would spend the rest of the day. There it was just my guide, his wife, and the owner of the property sitting on the owner's back porch which looked upon a stretch of forest and was bordered by a neighbor's banana tree grove.
Below are the images I captured of the various birds that visited his backyard where he had perches of various sizes and the left over fruit from his family's breakfast. The variety of "backyard birds" was just spectacular.
Overall, Costa Rica and the biodiversity along with the welcoming culture really drew me in and, much like Japan, is calling me back. I'm super excited to announce that I will be co-leading Wildside Nature Tour's 2024 Costa Rican photography tour with Lee Hoy, who has been a regular visitor of the country for years now. Many of the locations I visited are on the itinerary along with some of the places I had researched but did not make it to; however, Lee has been to all of them multiple times. So if you would like to see Costa Rica and the stunning display of biodiversity the various jungle environments have to offer, consider joining me next March on my return visit to Costa Rica.