An Afternoon Birdwatching at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom

For our very last day in Costa Rica, we decided to take a full day tour to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a remote wetland known for its incredible wildlife, located about 12 miles south of Los Chiles and near the Nicaraguan border. We arranged for our guide, wildlife specialist Odir Rojas to pick us up at our hotel early in the morning to avoid the high heat and humidity of the afternoon. We also knew that the kids would rather spend the day at the pool instead of doing another long tour so this was our compromise.

Our two-hour drive to the refuge took us north through beautiful lush Costa Rican countryside, passing through tiny farming pueblos (“villages”) and along many gravel roads. Apparently most tours that leave from La Fortuna don’t go all the way into the reserve but only on the edge. Since we were staying in Rio Celeste and had our own private tour, we were able to go all the way in. It was definitely worth the effort!

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Heading out to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, passing through beautiful farmland.

The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is wetlands area consisting of a vast network of marshes and streams that drain into the Lago Caño Negro during the wet season. Given its unique ecosystem, the reserve is world renown for its excellent bird-watching especially the many species of migratory birds that seek sanctuary in this magical place. It is very remote and there are no public facilities at refuge, only a small family owned farm where we met our boat driver for the tour and were able to use the toilet.

I confess to being a bit surprised by the lack of development at the reserve but by this point nothing should have surprised me. It is rural, local tourism at its finest and thankfully there has been little adverse impact to this fragile ecosystem caused by tourism. The refuge remains hard to reach, off the beaten path and undeveloped. It is a true treasure.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Odir parked the Four-Wheel Drive in the shade under a tree. We were the only ones there. A young Tico walked up to greet us and we followed him a few steps to the river to board our boat.  We had the entire boat to ourselves so we were able to move around and get pretty close to observe wildlife. Our driver was very good at spotting birds from a distance and would cut the engine so we could quietly glide in without disturbing them. 

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

The Río Frío (which is the river we went tubing on the day before) is the main river that feeds the reserve and drains into the lake Caño Negro. Years ago, the river was so narrow and surrounded by jungle that the river appeared black in color which is why they named it Caño Negro. Over time, the river widened and now the color is more of a milky brown.

Out of Costa Rica’s estimated 880 species of resident and migrant birds, over 200 species have been found in Caño Negro during prime migration season. Once spring arrives and the dry season comes, the migrant birds head back to North America while some species stay year-round. Our timing could not have been more perfect.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some of the amazing birds that reside in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge include boat-billed herons, roseate spoonbills, jabiru storks, kingfishers, ibises, herons, and egrets. There are also tons of caimans as well as iguanas, lizards, alligators, jaguars and monkeys. When the lake dries up in mid-April (during the dry season which is mid-April-November) many birds leave and head north. Odir told us that oftentimes the entire lake is completely filled without thousands of birds near the shore. I can only imagine how beautiful it would be to see a field of snowy white egrets!

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Boat-billed Heron

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Snowy Egret

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa RicaCaño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa RicaCaño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa RicaCaño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Iguanas are everywhere

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Basilisk also called the”Jesus Christ Lizard” as they can walk across water

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Why not take a free ride?

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa RicaCaño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa RicaCaño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

After an hour and a half boat ride, the kids were losing steam. We had seen tons of birds – many which I can’t even name – but no monkeys or better yet a jaguar. Odir told us that he once saw a jaguar sneaking up on a caiman to attack. Apparently caimans are their favorite treat! Out of all my trips to the jungle, I have yet to see a jaguar. That must mean I have to go back!

We ended our tour with a wonderful lunch at a local restaurant about a twenty-minute drive away from the refuge. It was perhaps one of the best meals we had on the entire trip. Home-cooked grilled chicken with rice and beans. We reflected on the amazing nine-day adventure we had in Costa Rica. It ended up being one of the best family vacations we have ever taken. What made it so special is that there was a little bit of something for everyone. Zip-lining, canyoning, boogie boarding and swimming for the kids and nature, hiking, exploring and wildlife watching for everyone. After three separate trips to Costa Rica, I have fallen in love with this amazing country and I know that destiny will someday bring me back again.

I hope you have enjoyed all of my Costa Rica posts! To see all the posts in this series, click here. 







      • Thank you! Doing well…we actually knocked one off the bucket list and took a trip to New Zealand with a stopover in Hawaii in June just after my oldest’s graduation. Another magical place- not sure if you’ve been, but it is absolutely awesome! 🙂

      • Wonderful to hear!!! Yes my husband and I went to New Zealand for 2 weeks back in 2002 and it by far is one of my most favorite places on earth! Just haven’t made it back yet. 😌

  1. In addition to giving us many enjoyable pictures, you answered a question that has troubled me for years: why do claimants exist? To be eaten with delight by jaguars, of course! Those cats are awesome, third largest and great swimmers, like tigers. Keep them in the wild.

  2. Pingback: An Afternoon Birdwatching at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge | necltr

  3. Di

    Hello Nicole,
    What a lovely and peaceful conclusion post.
    It’s been wonderful journeying with you and yes, this adventure certainly looked like there was something for everyone.
    Your photos included here are great and show the diversity there in Costa Rica…

  4. What a great last day, Nicole! You saw so many wonderful things during this trip. Thanks for sharing them with us. Brought back some good memories for me.


  5. Beautiful photos – first time visitor. Certainly looks like you had a great vacation. The world is such a small place, there is so much to see, and do. Have a great week.

  6. What an amazing variety of fauna! And beautifully captured Nicole. Costa Rica has always been on my radar, your wonderful posts are pushing it higher on my list.

  7. Great nature captures Nicole – sounds like to saw and did it all – but there’s always more to see and do isn’t there? Especially love the lizard shots! Costa Rica is the only place I’ve ever been where I was able to photograph bats – YIKES!

  8. All those great bird images took me back there. I remember seeing an anhinga drying its wings and thinking what an unusual bird it was, only to find them all over Florida. I have heard of the basilisk but have never seen one, except in a Nat Geo special, where he walked across the water. This was a great series Nicole. Makes me want to go back to CR.

  9. great post, great outing with the birds! if you’d like more identification in the birds i can help — i’m just finishing a late breakfast while in transit but will be in place tonight and thru the weekend.. time to roll, but wanted to give you a thumbs up!

    • Thanks Lisa! Yes I’d love help with the birds! I don’t always get the species all written down. Love reading about your new home in Ecuador.

      • Aren’t the snowy egrets lovely with their yellow boots?!!! They are similar to the cattle egrets, but the cattle egrets have a touch of caramel/reddish in some of their feathers – not as stark white…

        The large egrets are the Great Egrets. In other areas, there is also the Great White Heron, best identified by the color of their legs…

        Immature Little Blue Egrets are also white and about the size of Snowy Egrets – best identified by the color of the beak and the feet….

        When they have their feet hidden in the mud, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish!

        The bird doing the yoga stance is an Anhinga…
        The cute little ‘stumpy’ bird iis most likely a Ringed Kingfisher… There are several kingfishers, but most likely it’s a ringed.
        There seems to be a darker Anhinga after that – perhaps an immature between stages?
        The next is a Neotropic Cormorant…. easy identification between that and Anhinga is to look at the length of the bill…

        Great photos, btw!

      • Wow you really know your birds Lisa! I bet after so many years living in Central and South America as well as you love of painting birds have really helped ! Thanks for the identification. Have you been to this part of Costa Rica before? I enjoyed it. I’d also love to get to the Caribbean side and make it down into Panama sometime.

      • If my friend Barbara were with us when you asked that question in person, we both would have burst out laughing…

        Oh yes.. We were staying ‘arriba’ upriver in the southern end of Lake Nicaragua.. I was on a visa border crossing, and we were tarpon fishing with a plan to go down Rio San Juan all the way to the ‘boca’ – where my friend who has a fishing lodge on the Costa Rica side – would pick us up… only there was no where to stamp us into Costa Rica… so because Barb was with me, I did not want to risk getting both of us in legal hot water – and we crossed into CR by boat at Los Chiles… what a wild few weeks, from Nica stories to the crossing, then to SjO by bus then overnight and then Nature Air flight to Rio Colorado Lodge on the north-eastern side…. The funniest parts are best told in person – for sure that will happen one day!

        It was a pleasure to provide identification on the birds!

  10. Pingback: An Afternoon Birdwatching at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: