The Tarcoles River begins on the southern slopes of Costa Rica’s Cordillera Central volcanic range and flows southwest to the Gulf of Nicoya. It flows 69 miles through an area famous for the large population of American crocodiles, ending at the Pacific Ocean near Carara National Park and the town of Tarcoles.  


Since 2007, José Eduardo has been conducting guided boat trips down the river where passengers are consistently rewarded with diverse wildlife sightings. According to the owner of José’s Crocodile River Tours, there are approximately 20 crocodiles per mile on the river. But many of the international bird enthusiasts on board his trips might argue that the river’s greatest claim to fame should be the amazing number and variety of birds.


Love at first sight


In 2006, I visited Costa Rica for the first time. While there, I visited the Tarcoles River and took a boat tour to see the crocodiles and other wildlife. At that time, I fell in love with the mangroves and birds in the area. Nowadays, I immediately feel at peace anytime I am out on the Tarcoles River with my camera. It is one of my favorite places to spend time.  


Perhaps because there is truth to the phrase “the early bird gets the worm,” Tarcoles River birding tours generally start around 6:00 a.m. Some of the birds seen early on are falcons, hawks, jacana, spoonbill, heron, ibis, stilt birds and scarlet macaws. 


Later in the tour, passengers visit the mangroves, where the prehistoric boat-billed heron, elusive mangrove hummingbird, yellow warbler and mangrove vireo can be seen in the area. 


Near the downstream end of the tour route, passengers are taken to where the Tarcoles River meets the Pacific Ocean. Brown pelicans, magnificent frigatebirds, osprey and many terns can be seen here.  


While a wide variety of bird sightings is the main goal of a birdwatching tour, mammals can often be seen along the Tarcoles River too, including coati, raccoons, howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys. Some lucky passengers might even spot a mangrove boa!

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Never the same


Each time I visit the Tarcoles River, I see something different than the last time. The river wildlife encountered is never the same and always presents some kind of surprise. For example, on my last boat adventure with Randall Ortega Chaves of Mangrove Birding Journeys, I was excited to watch and photograph a three-week old baby tiger heron in its nest. Before that, I had never seen a tiger heron in its nest. The baby sat completely still in the mangroves. Randall said the baby tiger heron sits completely still to appear like a stick to avoid predators. This made me nervous, because not far away, a common black hawk was sitting and looking like he was on the hunt.  


Another time at the Tarcoles River, I watched the beautiful stilt birds playing along the shore. A person on my boat yelled, “did that crocodile just eat a bird?” I quickly turned and saw one of the sweet stilt birds being eaten by the crocodile. The stilt birds companions all screamed and chased the crocodile, which was sad to witness. It had always made me nervous how close the birds stand to the crocodiles, but I just assumed they could easily fly away. Not that time …


Fascinating kingfishers


It is common to see many kingfishers while on the Tarcoles River. On my last tour, I was able to observe four different kingfisher species: green, American pygmy, Amazon and ringed. During such a tour, I have also seen for the first time four green kingfishers together. Two were juveniles and two were adults. The four kingfishers were squabbling and hanging out on a branch near the shore. It was interesting to watch as the parents were ignoring the juveniles who were much more active than the adults.  


Watching kingfishers hunt is a joy too. They are very fast and almost always come out of the water with a nice fish. During another Tarcoles river trip, I saw a male kingfisher catch a large fish. He refused to share with his girlfriend. I said, “that was not very nice, she is probably hungry too!” Within 10 seconds, the female dove down, caught an even bigger fish than the male and refused to share her fish with him. Justice!


When the Tarcoles River boat tour ends, passengers can wander the roads near the town of Tarcoles in search of even more birds. Many owls live near the town of Tarcoles. Owls are often popular with bird enthusiasts. The black-and-white owl and Pacific screech owl are frequently seen near Tarcoles. Earlier this year, I was delighted to see a spectacled owl for the first time, in a forest near Tarcoles. At that time, I saw both adult and juvenile spectacled owls living and nesting in teak trees. One of the juveniles was amazing. He was all white and posed for us on the side of a palm tree.  


Everyone should visit the Tarcoles area. The boat tours are excellent and offer a different adventure every time. I promise you won’t regret it.

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