Costa Rica is one of those places that people visit to “see the rainforest”. Although there’s no such thing as “the one and only rainforest”, Costa Rica is indeed a great place to check out this biodynamic habitat. There are some pretty cool tropical forests in Tiquicia (a local name for Costa Rica) and that’s where you need to go to see most of the bird species. However, since Costa Rica also soaks up several feet of rain per year, it has an abundance of rushing rivers, streams, and other waterways. As with every place on the planet, there are birds adapted to those aquatic habitats and some of them are downright cool and crazy:

Sunbittern: Bittern? Sun? What? Exactly. This neotropical feathered oddity entertains and confuses with its funny, heron/railish appearance. It’s closest relative isn’t a rail or heron but none other than the equally cool and crazy Kagu of New Caledonia. In Costa Rica, you can see the Sunbittern on forested rivers in many parts of the country. Its plumage blends in surprisingly well with its sun dappled surroundings.Sunbittern

A Sunbittern strolls through wet grass at Reserva La Marta, Costa Rica.

Sungrebe: What’s with the “sun” names? The Sungrebe doesn’t bask in the sunlight nor is it a grebe. Although it looks sort of like an exotic grebe, this fine, funny bird is in the Finfoot family. Nope, that’s not a joke, it is one of three species in the Finfoot family, the other two being the Masked Finfoot and the African Finfoot. What can you say, they all have finned feet! Our very own American Finfoot can be a challenge to see because it likes to skulk under vegetation that hangs over lowland rivers. In Costa Rica, this uncommon species can show up at any forested lowland river or lagoon, the best sites being Cano Negro, Tortuguero National Park, and the Sarapiqui River.Sungrebe

A Sungrebe snakes its way through the waters of Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron: Tiger-herons might not be as exotic as feathered weirdos like the Sunbittern and Sungrebe but any bird with “tiger” in its name is kind of cool. The tiger-herons earn their title because the juveniles have tawny plumage with black barring sort of  like the pattern shown by the feline ruler of the Asian jungles. Like other large herons, they are big, tough cookies that terrorize frogs and any small creatures unfortunate enough to feel their cold, reptilian gaze. On a recent trip to Tortuguero National Park, I also discovered that they can be exhibitionists!Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

 The Bare-throated Tiger-Heron has no shame.

The Bare-throated is common and easy to see at lots of lowland wetland sites in Costa Rica. Look for the Fasciated Tiger-Heron on rushing rivers, and the Rufescent Tiger-Heron in lowland swamps (or in Panama and South America where it is much  more common).Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Fasciated Tiger-Heron- a lot more conservative than the Bare-throated.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Rufescent Tiger-Heron- doesn’t like to show off in public.

Green Ibis: With their long, curlew-like bills, Ibis species are always cool and crazy. The Green Ibis is a dark, jade-green bird that lurks in the shade of forested lagoons and lowland rivers. It also likes to perch in tall trees and pretend to be a Black Vulture. In Costa Rica, it’s easiest to see this one at dawn and dusk around lagoons and lowland rivers in the Caribbean lowlands.Green Ibis

A Green Ibis from the Lands in Love hotel near San Ramon, Costa Rica.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail: This one makes it onto the list because it’s a colorful rail that is, ahem, easy to see! Yes, a friendly rail! In a few places, this rail even runs around villages like a lost, hyperactive chicken! Don’t believe me? Just bird Manzanillo, Costa Rica and you will see what I am talking about. Look for this common, comical bird along streams, rivers, and all sorts of wetlands.Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Such a nice, pink legged chicken, er, Gray-necked Wood-Rail.

Look for these cool and crazy waterbirds in Costa Rica and lots of other neotropical countries. Or, maybe you can just hang out at Bosque del Apache because Sungrebe and another wood-rail have already shown up at that bird magnet.

Written by Patrick O'Donnell
Patrick O'Donnell became a birder at the age of 7 after seeing books about birds in the Niagara Falls, New York public library. Although watching thousands of gulls in the Niagara Gorge was sublime, more bird species (and warmer weather) eventually brought him to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and other very birdy tropical places. A biologist by training, he has worked on bird-related projects in Colorado, Washington, Peru, and other locales, and has guided birders in Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. These days, he lives in Costa Rica where he juggles guiding, freelance writing, developing bird apps for Costa Rica and Panama, posting on his Costa Rica birding blog, and discussing dinosaurs with his young daughter.