Birdlife diversity is highest in the tropics, and world travelers determined to see a lot of bird species might spend months in equatorial regions of Asia, Africa, and South America. But even if your time is limited, you can find a wealth of beautiful and exotic birds just a short plane flight south from major U.S. cities. Prime birding sites in the nearby tropics offer perfect escapes from winter weather and the chance to add dozens—or even hundreds—of tropical birds to your life list.
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
Many tourists visit the Yucatan for beaches and massive Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza and Uxmal. But the region also boasts a rich variety of tropical birds, including several that occur nowhere else on Earth, such as the Yucatan Jay and the Rose-throated Tanager. Just south of Cancun, Cozumel Island has its own endemic Cozumel Vireo. Along the Yucatan's north coast, flocks of American Flamingos and other tropical species strut in the shallows at Celestun and Rio Lagartos.
Mountainous areas in the tropics usually have their own endemic birds, and this is true of the uplands of northern Central America. The cloud forests and shade-coffee plantations of western Guatemala are home to brilliantly colorful specialties such as the Rufous-collared Robin, Azure-rumped Tanager, Rufous Sabrewing, and Pink-headed Warbler. Resplendent Quetzals live in these highlands, too, and with a serious hike and some amount of luck, birders may spot the almost mythical Horned Guan.
The neon-blue Lovely Cotinga and rare Keel-billed Motmot are among the specialties of Pico Bonito National Park, a lush tract of rain forest near the northern coast of Honduras. The Lodge at Pico Bonito makes the perfect base for exploring the forest and for trips to outlying sites, such as interior valleys that host the localized Honduran Emerald. Farther west, dry tropical forests around the Copan ruins hold a different set of birds, including reintroduced Scarlet Macaws.
Costa Rican Highlands
Tiny Costa Rica boasts more than 900 avian species. The highlands region (shared with western Panama) is especially bird-rich, with at least 50 species found nowhere else in the world. Mountain valleys at Monteverde, Cerro de la Muerte, and Savegre offer comfortable lodges and great birding, including endemics such as the Collared Redstart, Prong-billed Barbet, Black Guan, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and the odd Wrenthrush. As a bonus, there’s always a chance of spotting a Resplendent Quetzal.
On a forested hilltop in the Canal Zone, an old radar tower has been converted into the most unusual birding lodge in the Americas. From the tower’s top deck, guests get distant views of ships moving through the canal and the gleaming high-rises of Panama City. Meanwhile, close at hand, trees ringing the tower are alive with toucans, puffbirds, tanagers, honeycreepers, hummingbirds, and myriad other birds, as well as howler monkeys. In spring and fall, the tower makes a perfect vantage point for watching raptor migration. Skilled guides are available to lead birding excursions throughout the region.
Trinidad & Tobago
On these islands at the southern edge of the Caribbean, the birdlife has a South American flavor. Most birders visiting Trinidad stay at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where colorful honeycreepers, tanagers, hummingbirds, and others surround the open veranda, and bizarre Oilbirds nest in a nearby grotto. Flocks of brilliant Scarlet Ibises gather at Caroni Swamp in the evenings, creating a world-class spectacle. Tobago has a slightly different avian mix, including tropicbirds, boobies, and other seabirds.