Costa Rica - February, 2006
TEXT ONLY VERSION
Costa Rica is one of the top world destinations for birders, due mainly to a combination of a high number of bird species (up to 800 depending on which list is looked at), the size of the country being relatively small (yet having a great diversity of ecosystems – it is divided into 6 different ecological zones), and, for a central American country, being relatively safe to visit. Thus it was that we had to have our own piece of Costa Rican avian action. This wasn’t our first trip to the region, since we had previously safely and effectively navigated both Mexico and Trinidad. Both of these destinations share not only similar families to Costa Rica, but also many of the same species. However, there are many more non-common families and species within the Costa Rican borders, which made it a challenge for us when identifying new birds.
The position and history of birds here is interesting, since millions of years of evolution has apparently married the formerly divided North and South American continents with the isthmus that finally joined at Costa Rica and Panama. This partially explains the diversity of species that the country enjoys – families migrated from both the North and the South, but not all intermingled due to barriers such as the mountain ranges which form the backbone of the region. Thus while Costa Rica has only 6 true endemics, and many more if the Costa Rica / Panama subzone (the Chiriqui) is considered, the distribution of species and families within the different zones is high. Some North American and Mexican species reach their southern limit in the North of the country (many in the dry North-western Guanacaste area), and even more South American specialities finally end their northern expansion in the Chiriqui area.
Since our budgetary time diet is usually no more than one enjoyable week, we could only plan to visit a sample of the sites on offer. The focus of our trips is more on enjoying the quality of the birds than trying to rack up as large a list as possible, so we planned to spend more time at fewer places than intricate planning and high mileage looking for an extra tick. The week was thus focused around spending two nights at three bases, with a night each end of the trip near to the airport, at hotels which would offer some additional birding if needed. The three areas we decided to visit were in the mountains at the Savegre Valley, on the Pacific coast near Tarcoles, which is the northern most barrier for some South America family types, and the Caribbean lowlands near to La Selva. We purposely stayed away from the Braullio Carrillo national park since it was reported to have a higher than average likelihood of car crime, being on a good road just out of the capital of San Jose.
Since the time of year we visited was not only the dry season, but also the most popular time for visiting birders, we took the precaution of booking ahead via the internet. The hotels we used were:
Hotel Buena Vista
The flight from the UK landed at Alajuela airport at 22:30, so we used this superb little hotel, which was only 9km from the touchdown, and also offered a free shuttle pickup. Due to a mix up with our booking agents, who had failed to secure the Hotel Bougainvillea, we also returned to the Buena Vista on the last night. Apart from missing the 2 likely Ground-sparrows at the Bougainvillea, the Buena Vista offers at least as good, if not a better, birding experience. It has a small garden to the rear, but the Floridian owner also allows birding on his property which is adjacent, and has some very birdy coffee plantation terraces below. There were quite a few species that we only saw at the Buena Vista, including Blue-crowned Motmot, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Swainson’s Thrush, Brown Jay, and Yellow-green Vireo. Another plus in favour of the Buena Vista is that the food is superb.
Savegre Lodge Hotel
There are very few hotels in prime locations in the mountains, and this is one of those. Thus, it probably gets booked up very quickly. It is located at the end of a 10km downward track in the Savegre Valley, and is right in the centre of some excellent mountainous forest. For those who chase birding icons, there are also regular Quetzel sightings within the area, including a group of birds that visit the avocado trees right above some of the chalets. Another speciality of the hotel is the provision of excellent hummingbird feeders, which attract good numbers of some of the mountain specialities.
Hotel Punta Leona
A few kilometres South of Tarcoles, this is a very new family orientated resort. This isn’t the sort of place we would have aimed for, but the price was surprisingly reasonable, and it is also in an excellent location for Pacific coast locations such as Carara. Villas Lapas, which are on the opposite side of the road to Tarcoles, are in a much more favourable setting, without the sunseekers and manicuring of the Punta Leona, but are also twice the price. We made do with an afternoon visit to the Villas, including a good buffet, but still found some good trails within the Punta Leona, again with birds that were seen only there, such as Black-throated Trogon and Dot-winged Antwren.
La Quinta, Sarapiqui
We were also lucky with this very hospitable and endearing hotel. Some birds were present at the feeders, but another benefit is the provision of a small frog garden, where some of the local poison dart frogs can be found. The buffet dinners are good, with the added benefit of being served in an open air restaurant. La Selva, which is a must see reserve in this area, is also just 15km away, and the reception can book a guide for La Selva, which is a must if the reserve trails are to be visited. As with all the hotels we frequented, directions given were accurate, and we had no problem in finding them.
Timing and weather
It is likely that superb birding can be experienced at any time of the year. The months of February and March are the drier months of the year, and so this is the period that most trips aim for, including ourselves. Dry season is something of a misnomer, since the term is only relative, and the amount of rain encountered also depends on which ecosystem is visited. We had more rain as the week progressed, but this was more likely to be due to moving between areas than the increase generally of poorer weather. So, we encountered mist and light drizzle as we climbed up towards the higher peaks, dry weather in the Savegre Valley (also cooler and more temperate here), hot and dry at the Pacific coast, and then hot with rain in the Caribbean lowlands. All these weather systems tallied very well with those predicted. The dry season is outside of the breeding season, and although only a handful of the birds change into a more drab non-breeding plumage, there is some dispersal from breeding grounds. Later in the year is probably much better for singing and displaying birds.
Biting insects can be something of an annoyance, without being a major irritation. Mosquitoes were encountered mainly in the forested areas of the lowlands, as well as chiggers, which seemed to prefer grassy lawns. Far from being a threat, we had hoped to see some snakes and spiders. We were warned to take care to avoid being bitten by the former, which are more of a danger in the forests at night, but unfortunately we didn’t even get a sniff of one.
We had been forewarned that roads in Costa Rica were very poor, with an attendant lack of road signs. Because of this, we invested in a 4X4, or what was supposed to be a 4X4, since the Toyota Rav4 we booked was actually two wheel drive. We also took a GPS and decent road map. There is no doubt that there are many potholes in the country, and that some roads were little more than rocky gravel tracks, but navigation was much better than expected. We didn’t get lost to any major extent at all, even when traversing San José. However, I would still strongly recommend a 4X4, more for the clearance and better suspension than the 4 wheel drive, since I am sure that a normal saloon car would be easily broken.
English is quite widely spoken, particularly in the hotels, but we did come across some folk that spoke only Spanish, including at reserves such as La Selva. We had learned some basic Spanish, and this was not only useful in certain situations, but was also well received by the locals. Electricity, always an essential for charging camera batteries, was also no problem. The US style sockets are used, and all hotel rooms had an ample supply.
The currency in Costa Rica is the colon, and the frightening fact about it is that it takes many colones to equate to other currencies, such as £1 having the equivalent of 1000 colones. The dollar is widely accepted, but it is still useful to have the local currency to hand. The downside is that the currency can only be obtained in Costa Rica itself, so we used the cash machine in the airport. As we travelled around, it became evident that there were also cash machines in the towns, so they were easier to find that originally thought.
There is only really one identification book to take – Stiles and Skutch. Despite being a little weighty, which seems to be the norm for Central and South American ID guides, it has good illustrations and species accounts.
We had tried to track down the now out of print 1:200000 map of the San Jose area, since we wanted as much detail for self navigation as possible. However, the 1:330000 scale map by International Travel Maps (www.itmb.com) which we used was more than adequate.
Site guide – “Where to watch birds in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean” (Wheatley & Brewer, Princeton Press) gives a good overall idea of the main sites within the country.
Buena Vista Hotel
We had expected that after a journey that lasted from the doorstep to the Buena Vista Hotel around 27 hours or so, which included not only a stop over at Amsterdam as planned, but also a change of aeroplane at Orlando in the USA for the last leg to San Jose, that we would have been far too tired to have planned anything for the first morning in the country. However, after a virtually sleepless night, and lying awake for about an hour and a half waiting for the sun to rise, we eventually exited the doorstep at about 5:45, where we could just about see the birds that we had heard calling (from the bedroom). First of these were 3 Clay-coloured Robins, feeding on the lawn which also happened to be directly outside of our room. The rear of the hotel, which is we were we standing, was fairly small, but did overlook the central valley, and much nearer, a couple of coffee plantations directly below. This is where the birding began. The shuttle driver the evening before had mentioned that there wasn’t much of a garden to the rear of the hotel, so the birds were limited, but as the morning progressed (up until breakfast at 8:00) we discovered that the potential was much greater than had been expected. The garden itself was more than just a good vantage point, and we notched up Social Flycatcher and Rufous-collared Sparrows in the half light quite quickly. A small collection of Red-billed Pigeons, Tropical Kingbirds and a singing Yellow-bellied Elaenia were here, with a Blue-and-white Swallows overhead. The vista below also held plenty of interest, the choice of which were Rufous-naped Wren and the first of a couple of Hoffman’s Woodpeckers, with a few Brown Jays to follow later. With curiosity mounting, we poked our heads through a hole in the hedge, and found the owner’s house, who was a very pleasant breakfasting gent hailing originally from Florida. He was more than happy for us to take in the birds of his garden, while he dined on juices and cereal. In the early morning sunshine, this move added yet more species, from very confiding Blue-crowned Motmot, and singing Greyish Saltator along the small avenue which ended at the locked entrance gate, to 3 noisy White-crowned Parrots which landed in a flowering tree behind two equally vociferous dogs confined to a compound. At 8 o’clock, we felt we had to call it a morning, since the car had now been delivered, and there was also the call of breakfast before setting off for the Talamanca Mountains.
After dropping off the delivery driver for the car hire firm in Alajuela, we set off for the mountains. We surprisingly navigated the capital of San Jose quite easily, with only the odd slight unplanned diversion, and this quickly gave way to more open countryside, where the blue skies began to turn greyer. As we ascended, we came across more and more mist and low cloud. There was a lot less traffic on the road than we had anticipated, so we arrived at the first targeted stop in a couple of hours. At the K76 marker, we turned to the right off the highway opposite a restaurant, and parked the car about 200 metres along a track. The surrounding area was quite densely vegetated, interspersed with one or two open clearings, and had a main track running through to what we presumed was another restaurant. We spent a couple of hours here, since it proved to be rich in both birds and orchids. Most of the best birds turned up within a very short distance of the car – even as we parked, a couple of blackish ground dwelling passerines tantalised us, eventually showing themselves to be Yellow-thighed Finches (the yellow thighs were not always obvious). We then birded this area for quite some time, and almost immediately had a small group of Ruddy Treerunners, as well as a very confiding Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher. We found a clearing around the corner from here, which had made way for a procession of pylons, and this proved to be the best spot for birds at this location. New speices seemed to be constantly appearing, and in addition to the already regular Treerunners and Yellow-thighed Finches, we added 2 new Hummingbirds to our world lists in the form of female Scintillant and stunning male Fiery-throated. The latter proved to be a problem initially, being ostensibly all dark in most lights, until they eventually turn to show off their iridescent red and yellow throats. While literally standing in this small spot, other birds which appeared included Large-footed Finch, a small collection of wood-warblers (Wilson’s, Yellow and Black-throated Green Warbler), and Black-capped Flycatcher. What was at first thought to be Peg-billed Finch proved to be the very similarly plumaged Slaty Flowerpiercer. We did venture a little further down the main track, but only added a couple more Fiery-throated Hummingbirds to our tally, so we returned once again to the clearing, which had also quietened down somewhat. A good diversion on route to Savegre Lodge!
Savegre Lodge and approach road
We found the turning from the main highway to Savegre Lodge very easily (the large sign for the lodge helped enormously). The road to the lodge from here was around 10km long, and almost all downhill. We stopped after around 3km, where we parked on a corner just above a small hamlet. We picked up birds as soon as we left the car, with Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers amongst the first – perhaps not the close views we had hoped for, but enough for identification, and in addition a small yet mobile flock of Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers. A stunning Flame-throated Warbler was directly above us. Walking down towards the hamlet, we came across our first Sooty Robin, which was unnaturally confiding, more intent on feeding in the road verges only metres away from us than being alarmed by our presence. One or two Large-footed Finches were among the copious Rufous-collared Sparrows. A few small female hummingbirds were either Volcano or Scintillant, but would require more experience or well marked males before we decided on specific identification one way or the other.
Once we had torn ourselves away from the pit stop on the descent to Savegre Lodge, we twisted and turned our way along the remaining 7km of road, which was occasionally dotted with workmen repairing potholes and bits of road that had slid into ravines. The rest of this journey was uneventful, and we pulled over the bridge into the lodge grounds. Even as we were parking the car, it was obvious that this was a Mecca for hummingbirds. There appeared to be feeders throughout the lodge grounds, which is not large in area, but well spaced out with cabins in 2’s and 3’s looking over small open spaces. The constant loud clicking of hummingbirds was all encompassing, in particular from Green Violet-ears, and tempted us to stow the luggage in haste and head straight to the feeders at the reception. We spent the next two hours wandering around and marvelling at these little birds – most impressive was when we found Magnificent Hummingbird perched alongside the tiny bundle of feathers that is the Scintillant Hummingbird. The hummingbird population here more or less comprises four common species, the one not mentioned already was Grey-tailed Mountain-gem. Spreading a little further through the lodge area, we added Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Elaenia, Slaty Flowerpiercers, and yet more Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers to the list. As we passed 5:30pm, the light began to fade, and we called it a day, with the temperatures falling to a much more temperate level.
After a half decent sleep, and in temperatures which were quite cool, we did of course wake up early, leaving the room for birding at first light. At this time of the day in the mountains, the sky was clear, and the outdoor temperatures bordered on cold. The Green Violet-ears had already begun their own version of a dawn chorus, although only the odd bird appeared at the feeders. We started the morning by exploring the reception area down to the river, and reacquainted ourselves with some of the birds already seen, including the 4 hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, Slaty Flowerpiercers, and Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers. We also chanced upon a pair of Torrent Tyrranulets next to the river and the bridge, feeding on the grass adjacent to the water. We were about to stop for breakfast, when we veered off to what appeared a more residential part of the grounds to find a different mix of birds. After Clay-coloured Robin, we picked up our first Mountain Robin, with obvious dark bill and drabber plumage. This was quickly followed by a fine male Flame-coloured Tanager, calling on wires, with a response from another male close by. Almost at the end of this area, we found Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush, at first calling but elusive, and then feeding in front of us on the open lawns. Our first trogon of the trip was a fine male Collared Trogon perched above the river, closely followed by a group of Band-tailed Pigeons and a single Collared Redstart. When we finally reached reception at 7:30, the hummingbird activity at the feeders had returned to normal.
After a nourishing breakfast of tomatoes on egg, we gleaned some information from reception as to the possible location of nearby Quetzals, and set off over the bridge from the lodge, picking up our first Swallow-tailed Kite above the peaks as we did so, and Red-tailed Hawk minutes later. The track just down from the lodge was productive for tyrant flycatchers, in the guise of Black-capped, and the more common and confiding Yellowish Flycatcher. We were looking for a track to the left, with a wooden bridge, which was alleged to be the direction for the Quetzals, but first crossed a substantial vehicular wooden bridge, to enter what appeared to be an outdoor recreation area. Black Phoebes kicked off an avian show here, followed by a group of noisy Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers which entertained for some time, with Tufted Flycatcher overhead. One or two Common Bush-tanagers proved more elusive at first as they foraged in the waterside vegetation.
After about 400m, we turned left towards a wooden bridge, which was no more than a felled tree with rails. Just as we were about to cross, we came across a bird party. Amongst this loose group were 2-3 Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, the only ones we were to see during the week, and a single Silver-throated Tanager, which we would see a lot more of as the trip progressed. In addition were Yellow-winged & Philadelphia Vireos, interspersed with various wood warblers. Continuing on over the bridge, the track followed the river on the opposite bank, and we had only progressed about 100m when we were treated to very close Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers, and two active Ruddy Treerunners, demonstrating where their name comes from, feeding and chasing in all directions on the moss covered branches. This activity was all just before the clearing where Quetzals had been reported to be nest building. Once we were happy that we had located the particular target tree, which did indeed seem to have new shavings from the excavation at its base, we made ourselves comfortable on a discreet rock for half and hour or so to watch and wait. This proved to be fruitless, with no Quetzal on show, and was quite quiet overall for birds, so we continued along the track, which eventually crossed over a rope bridge and an impressive waterfall. This offered an excellent opportunity to bathe steamy feet in the refreshingly cold water. This seemed to be an opportune time to turn around and return for another stake out at the Quetzal site. Again, the target bird failed to show here, but we did pick up Collared Redstart and Flame-throated Warbler. Approaching the log bridge once again, bird parties continued to cross our path, and these included Black-cheeked Warbler, Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, Yellow-thighed Finches, and a pair of Black-faced Solitaires. Increasing numbers of Collared Redstarts seemed to coincide with them being also much more approachable, with one bird almost touchable.
After we exited the waterfall trail, we decided on a little trek up the hill to the village of San Gerardo de Dota, where the terrain was more open. The uphill climb was short and steep, and well used by passing traffic. A species that made this worthwhile, besides the Yellow-faced Grassquits, was Yellow-bellied Siskin, with a singing male following the drabber female. The next move was to descend back down to the waterfall trail, and sit out the absent Quetzal once again. Ever the optimists, we had a fruitless one hour sit, although one of the local guides did mention other sites for the bird, most of which required local knowledge. We did add Black-thighed Grosbeak to the list during our wait, with two and then a later single flying through.
At 4 o’clock, we turned back towards Savegre Lodge, again passing a small collection of Yellow-thighed Finches, Ruddy Treerunner, Rufous-capped Brush-finch, and lone Flame-throated Warbler. Back at the lodge, we decided to follow one of the tips from the guide, when he had told us that, unbelievably, Quetzals made regular appearances just to the rear of our room in trees which included fruiting avocados. We sat this out, as well as the collection of other birders who eventually left, until 5:15pm, when a male Resplendant Quetzal flew into the avocado tree directly in front of us. It posed both inside and outside of the canopy for about 5 minutes before leaving. A Bellbird had been calling throughout nearby, but proved good to its reputation and kept well hidden.
Happy but not too satiated by the views of the Quetzal the previous evening, we arose at first light to make the short walk to the rear of the cabin to stake out the bird yet again. It was a little less of a surprise to have a male bird make two appearances, at 6 and 6:30am, unfortunately in still increasing early morning light. During our wait, a single Emerald Toucanet made several visits to pick at the small avocados growing from the canopy, and we were fortunate enough to see a passing flock of Sulphur-winged Parakeets twice. A similar sounding pair of birds was calling from a lone tree on the slope just above us, so I scrambled up to its location – not an easy option at this altitude – to pin down a pair of Boat-billed Flycatchers. We didn’t see the Quetzal again, despite waiting around until 7:45am, but other birds did appear for various groups later in the morning, both here and next to the entrance bridge.
Cerro de la Muerte
We were going to head straight up and out of the valley, to make our first stop at the Hotel Georgina, just a little way along the main highway, but the call of the mountain was too strong. After pulling off the road on to one of the tracks to the peak, we parked the car after a short distance, and worked a couple of the paths through the terrain, which mainly consisted of lowish bushes and the odd small copse of trees. The scenery at this altitude is stunning, with the air clear, and even the temperature was still very comfortable to quite hot. First bird that we saw was a Red-tailed Hawk hovering over the peaks. Expecting to find some highland specialities, we were surprised at first to stumble across Wilson’s Warblers and Slaty Flowerpiercers. We ultimately found about half a dozen flying, perching, feeding and battling Hummingbirds, most of which proved to be Volcano, amongst the less prevalent Scintillants. These were our first definitive Volcano Hummingbirds, with some of the males showing off their purple gorgets with pride. Only other additions here were a male Magnificent Hummingbird and a small group of Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers.
After we left Cerro de la Muerte, the next stop, which we had been looking forward to due to its potential for hummingbirds, was the Hotel Georgina, only a few kilometres South of the Cerro de la Muerte turn off. Arrival there was a little disappointing, since the feeders were located on the opposite side of the glass windows to our inside seating. We did have numbers of Magnificent Hummingbird and Green Violet-ear, along with smaller counts of Scintillant and lone Fiery-throated Hummingbird, but eyeballing them on the other side of a window while sipping on a vat of coffee wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for.
Most of the rest of the day was spent driving to Punta Leona, a journey which was composed of various either interesting or exasperating parts. The former included the descent from the mountains, unless one of the crawling trucks was met on a series of bends, the latter mainly the 48km of pure stony track and pothole that was the road from Dominical to Quepos. The whole journey must have taken at least 5 hours.
The security and design of the Hotel Punta Leona complex came as something of a surprise. We had booked for economy accommodation, and were stunned to find ourselves within an American biased holiday resort, with many all inclusive features. However, this was lost on us, and within minutes of finding our room, we found what we supposed was one of the mapped walking nature trails within the complex. It seemed to be a private road which was under construction, and the paving stones used for the road were still being laid. As we walked up this road, we initially thought we had missed the trails proper, but as soon as some antbirds appeared in the form of Black-hooded Antshrike and Dot-winged Antbird, our spirits started to lift. The paved road was bounded on both sides by thick woodland, and birds appeared regularly from it. Many were difficult to discern in the canopy, but identification was easier as we continued our climb. This included Yellow-throated Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and the first of a few Panama Flycatchers. It was only when we reached the top of our climb that we agreed this was in fact one of the marked trails, despite it appearing as if it had been designed as an add on road for more accommodation. The descent was possibly even more interesting, not least due to the appearance of our first handful of Scarlet Macaws – startling in both size and noise as well as colour. It was likely that they were aiming for a roost somewhere in the resort grounds. We also found our first large Woodpeckers – at least 3 Pale-billed at the base of the road. Above us were a couple of Woodcreepers, only one of which could be identified as Streak-headed, as well as single Summer Tanager. Perhaps most impressive of all was a pair of Black-throated Trogons, picked up when the male flew across the road on to a nearby branch. All in all, this turned out to be a rather good walk, although we were looking forward to leaving the resort first thing in the morning.
About 400m South of the Tarcoles River, we found the entrance to the reserve at around 6am, where the gate to the Riverside Trail was closed (it was in fact closed all morning) – the sign did ask for no entry before 7am. So we entered before 7, and started birding the forest encrusted trail. This is supposed to be the better of the 2 trails (the other is a smaller circular trail from reception), and is about 2-3 km long, ending up alongside the river, which seemed to be freestanding at this point. The first half an hour was hard work, with poor light, dense forest and birds few and far between, although it was then that we chalked off singing Black-hooded Antshrike and 3 Pale-billed Woodpeckers above us. Progress saw a slight thinning of the forest, and bird life increased as the morning wore on. Some hotspots for birds seemed to be present, one of which had Rufous-tailed Jacamar out in the open, and Dusky Antbird and a pair of Barred Antshrikes nearby. Hummingbirds were common but fleeting, until a superb Long-tailed Hermit fed close and long enough for good views. With Scarlet Macaws overhead, we found small numbers of White-shouldered Tanagers, and feeding with a Pale-billed Woodpecker, a group of Red-legged Honeycreepers hosted a single Scarlet–thighed Dacnis.
The river at the end of the trail seemed almost static, but was an excellent spot for birds. First and most obvious of the critters were some close (and small) spectacled caimans, with much larger adults near to the opposite bank, accompanied by a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks. Closer inspection near to them also found Northern Jacana and Bare-throated Tiger-heron. The longer we stayed here, the more birds appeared. Directly in front of us was a roosting flock of 8-10 Boat-billed Herons, belying their nocturnal nature by periodically making the effort to snap at each other before returning to slumbers. Common Tody-flycatchers shared their tree, and reappeared regularly. Perhaps prize of the birds here were the Kingfishers, with Green later on, but perhaps personally the best of a good bunch, an American Pygmy Kingfisher, which eventually landed to fish on branches only a couple of metres from us. The peace was broken by the huge crash of a large tree falling not far from our spot – it seemed to startle not only the animals and birds, but also one of the on looking group, who damaged her leg when in flight. But the birding had to continue, and we unearthed more new species on the return walk, with initially White-winged Becard and Black-capped Tityra amongst Black-hooded Antshrikes, but had also totted up 4 Wrens for the morning by the end, with the prize possibly going to Black-bellied, with a combination of explosive song and skulking nature. Rufous-naped Wren had been calling on and off at the river, but we also encountered a couple of Rufous-bellied Wrens. Rounding off the walk was a stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot, which landed just above the latter pair of Wrens. Back at the car park, we paid our dues of a couple of thousand Colones to the boy in attendance – good value for a superb morning.
After a very hearty buffet lunch at the restaurant here, we walked the trail which follows the river upstream. This is quite a nice little resort, certainly a lot more comfortable and birder friendly than Punta Leona, with plenty of Great Kiskadees, Grey-capped & Social Flycatchers populating the many open areas around the accommodation. Amongst these were Black-mandibled Toucan and Passerini’s Tanager. The nesting hole of a pair of Hoffman’s Woodpeckers was pointed out to us, directly above one of the chalet blocks. The trail was at the end of the chalet area, and began with a rickety rope bridge over the river. The start of the trail at the other side of the bridge had 4 very vocal but very elusive Riverside Wrens. Quietly meandering their way along the forest floor here were the first (positively identified) Grey-chested Doves. This short curved part of the trail ended in another rope bridge, and it was here that we had what could have been the best find of the site – a juvenile Tiger-heron was slowly and contentedly feeding amongst the boulders of the river, with a female Green Kingfisher on the far bank. The dark bill and habitat seemed to point to Fasciated Tiger-heron, a species more likely to be found on the Caribbean slopes, but more detailed examination of the bill shape pointed to Bare-throated Tiger-heron. We continued over the bridge, and through the dry forest, until this trail terminated again at the river, where we added only Streaked Flycatcher and a second Grey-chested Dove, as well as another Dusky Antbird and Riverside Wren. The return was uneventful, apart from a lone White Ibis standing in the centre of the river back at the chalets, and male Summer Tanager in the trees in front of the accommodation.
Tarcoles wasn’t really what we had expected. We had information to go to Tarcol Lodge, where we could park and look around the mangroves surrounding it. When we arrived, it was locked up, with no sign of life, and the view from the front (normal charge $2 for non residents) didn’t look very promising. We decided to double back, park at the soccer pitch, and search along the shoreline for roosting / nesting Nighthawks. When we had parked the car under a tree for shade, we asked a local resident if it would be safe to leave it in broken Spanish – not sure about whether this was the best thing to do, but it was still there when we got back! We hadn’t even left the football pitch when we picked up a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl along the perimeter, patiently sitting and totally unconcerned as to our presence. The walk (trudge?) along the beach to the flotsam where the Nighthawks were suspected wasn’t particularly pleasant, being at least a mile long in direct heat and on soft sand. We found no Nighthawks, but did have succour in Collared Plover – a new species for us! Not to be outdone, a Peregrine Falcon landed on the sand at the end of the beach, eyeing up a snack of wader. It flew off without one in the end, but left some jittery birds nevertheless. As we walked back, we had our first and only terns (and gulls) of the trip – 3 Royal Terns, one on the waters edge, and 2 fishing, along with a moribund Brown Pelican, plonked on the sand, which probably didn’t have a great deal of time to live.
Last call of the day was back to Villas Lapas, since some of the residents had told us of Scarlet Macaws flying in to roost the previous evening. We waited a short time, during which only 2 birds landed on some distant trees in the fading light. However, as we were approaching the car, a Nightjar flew around the car park. We weren’t sure of the identification, but it was nice to see.
We set off early from Punta Leona and arrived at the small town of Orotina by about 6:00am. This was to look for the well known and popular Black-and-white Owls. Normally a deep forest species, this misguided pair had taken it upon themselves to reside in the town square of Orotina. Probably more of a challenge than finding the birds was finding the square itself – we had to zigzag through the unmarked streets to find it. Once there, one of the locals was happy to point out one of the birds perched unmoving above us. We admired this for some time, but were also aware of the fact that an equally disturbed Sloth was often to be found here. We didn’t find it, but did stumble across the second of the owls. Owls were not the only birds to be inhabiting an unlikely spot, since we also had White-winged Doves, the first of the trip, Great-tailed Grackles, and Clay-coloured Robins in profusion. There was even a Hoffman’s Woodpecker in one of the bare trees. We felt exhausted after such intense birding, so treated ourselves to some coffee and a sizable chunk of banana cake in one of the local cafes.
We then made the journey across Alajuela to La Paz waterfall gardens. These are ostensibly a tourist attraction, but are wonderfully laid out, with plenty of man made attractions for non birders. We hadn’t covered the waterfalls by the morning, since this was where a lot of the groups were ultimately heading, and in the afternoon decided on a riverside walk in the opposite direction. In addition to the butterfly garden, orchid garden, and serpentarium, there was also a hummingbird garden, aimed at attracting wild birds. As soon as we had paid our entrance fee at reception, we were immediately mesmerised by the Hummingbirds and Tanagers around the feeders directly outside of the main building. Green-crowned Brilliant, Purple-throated Mountain-gem, and Violet Sabrewing quickly fell to the ticker’s pencil, with frequent visits from Silver –throated Tanagers, Common Bush-tanagers, and Tennessee Warblers on the adjacent fruit feeders. With a slight drizzle and low cloud all morning, we had to be careful with the cameras, but canopies had been thoughtfully provided at the feeding stations for shelter. We eventually made our way down to the Hummingbird garden, where we spent the rest of the morning (either at the Hummingbird feeders or nearby fruit feeders). La Paz is reported to have a list of 24 different Hummingbirds, but on our visit, and this may demonstrate seasonal variations, we had 4 regular species, with Black-bellied Hummingbird flitting in and out on occasion, as well as brief Fiery-throated Hummingbird outside of the garden, and Coppery-headed Emerald below the top restaurant. The fruit feeders were often very busy with avian traffic, and I spent most of the morning under an arbour watching Tanagers in the form of Silver-throated, Golden-hooded, Crimson-collared, Blue-grey and Olive. Brief appearances were made by Buff-throated Saltator, Prong-billed & Red-headed Barbet, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. A confiding Ochraceous Wren was feeding more or less at our feet, and at one time crossed the arbour almost through the tripod. Other regulars at the dining table included the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Robin and plenty of Baltimore Orioles.
The intention to only stop off at La Paz for the morning turned into a full day visit, and we were more or less the last people to leave at closing time (5:30pm). In addition to the display from the morning regulars, additional species turned up throughout the rest of the day. First stop was back to the fruit feeders, where a Coati was feeding on the bananas. A Streak-breasted Treehunter was picked out above the feeding station, and seemed to be passing through, when it stopped to preen for some time directly above us. We had planned to visit the waterfalls at some time, but this was the goal of most of the tour parties, so we descended the initial part of the path behind them, and turned upstream instead, alongside some spectacular rapids (and no other people!). There were very few birds here, apart from a group of 3 Slate-throated Redstarts, but it was an enjoyable walk. On the way back, we passed the trout lake, which was more like a swimming pool (without trout) and found ourselves below reception. The first Passerini’s Tanagers were picked up here, along with close Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald, and Purple-throated Mountain-gem. After gorging ourselves on the reception hummingbird feeders, we returned to the fruit feeders once more, where birds visiting had subsided to some degree. We staked this spot out until the light began to fade a little at around 4:15pm. Returning to the track below reception, we picked up closer Passerini’s Tanagers, along with a scolding Grey-breasted Wood-wren. The light on the Golden-hooded & Blue-grey Tanagers seemed to show the birds off so much more impressively than earlier in the day. The £12 entrance fee for La Paz was more than worth the money, and the quality of the birds eclipsed the many visitors frequenting the gardens.
La Selva entrance drive
When we arrived at the La Quinta lodge the previous evening, we were informed that you had to book to visit La Selva reserve. This was both to limit the amount of visitors to the reserve, and also a guide was required to walk the trails. However, as an alternative, we were told that the entrance drive between the two security posts could be walked without charge, which is exactly what we did this morning, and it resulted in a superb birding experience. We navigated both security points and parked the car next to the main gate, and almost immediately had Montezuma’s Oropendolas and Keel-billed Toucans overhead. The first half an hour, spent near to the main gate, was fairly quiet, with a highlight being singing Black-striped Sparrow. As we exited the green and white gates 100m from here, the birdlife increased many fold. We stopped at one particular spot for around half an hour to study Black-cowled & Yellow-tailed Orioles, along with copious Passerini’s Tanagers. Alongside were female Barred & Great Antshrikes, joined by 2 Yellow-billed Caciques. On the opposite side of the track was a very fleeting Tawny-faced Gnatwren. The same spot then offered preening female Violaceous Trogon, our first Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, a pair of Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, and 2 feeding Mealy Parrots. We were about to meander further down the track, when we spotted a Bright-rumped Attilla, almost alongside a Boat-billed Flycatcher. Progression along what was probably only a 400m track was slow due to the quality of the birds, until we came upon a couple of star birds in the form of White-collared Manakin and passing Little Hermit. This was present near to the first security gate. It was now 10am, with the earlier drizzle abating to leave broken sunshine, and the bird activity seemed to be quietening down somewhat. The return to the car added another (pair) of White-collared Manakins, feeding alongside a Long-tailed Hermit.
Selva Verde Lodge
This was only 10km from La Selva, and cost us about £6 each for the afternoon, which we at first thought was for entry, but turned out to be the cost of the excellent buffet lunch. The restaurant overlooked the river, which we had checked as soon as we entered the grounds for Sunbittern, without success. Selva Verde offers accommodation, and is set in primary forest, with a stand of secondary forest across the road. There are some good trails through both, but the site is particularly noted for a regular pair of Sunbitterns which have taken up residence on this stretch of the river. As we traversed the footbridge for the first time, we picked up a large hovering Kingfisher, and were lucky enough to relocate it when it landed – a female Amazon Kingfisher was perched about 40m down from us along one of the small tributary streams. As we were celebrating this find, one of the lodge guides asked if we wanted to see Sunbittern? The answer was obvious, so he took us back over the bridge to point out a feeding bird slowly making its way around one of the pools adjacent to the river. The guide books don’t do justice to this almost mythical bird, and not only did we have good views from the bridge, but he encouraged us to get closer to the bird on the rocks. After snatching his hand off at this suggestion, we camped ourselves much nearer to the oblivious bird, then to find a second to the rear of the pool. One of the birds even showed off the dazzling wing markings as it preened. After seeing both Sunbittern and Amazon Kingfisher, we agreed that seeing no more birds here would still have resulted in a successful stop. However, we started on one of the forest trails, ignoring the Wellington boots designed for protection against snake bites, and found a party of birds after about 100m. This was kicked off with Orange-billed Sparrow, feeding in the dark undergrowth, and preceded at least 3 Barred Woodcreepers and Cinnamon Becard. Not to be outshone, a female Masked Tityra put in a brief appearance, with a much more showy pair of Red-throated Ant-tanagers, the male of which was determined to show off directly in front of us. We must have stood in this same spot for around an hour, since the quality of the birds continued. After seeing Barred Woodcreeper, we also added a pair of Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, with both species sharing the same tree at one time, demonstrating the startling difference in size. The Orange-billed Sparrows (a pair) reappeared, and were now much more confiding. The trail continued on a curve, where it met up with the river, and we treated ourselves to a refreshingly cold paddle in the waters of the Sarapiqui River. After following a pair of Grey-chested Doves along the trail, we refound the dining area, and a feeding station which had been replenished with bananas. With the light fading, this played host to pairs of Shining & Green Honeycreeper, Olive-backed Euphonia, and a single almost motionless Wood Thrush. After another short visit to the earlier productive spot along the trail, the mosquitoes started to come out in force, indicating a choice time to return to the car. One last look at the feeding tables was a good decision, since on approaching the feeding area, 3 skulking birds flew across the path in front of me. After following the line of rustling leaves and branches, one of the birds finally put in a sub 10 second appearance – a dapper Chestnut-backed Antbird, complete with light blue orbital ring around the eye.
The rain had been lashing against the hotel roof through the night, and we had hoped that this would be the end of it, but it continued to fall as we approached La Selva. We were due to be at the reserve for 5:45am, but the security guards weren’t aware of our booking, and reception wasn’t due to open until 7am, so we wandered the area in what was now a light drizzle. Our guide appeared after 6am, and was thankfully only showing the 3 of us around. We were a little disappointed to be only guided around the reserve for less than 2 hours, when we had expected 3 hours. The expectations of La Selva had been high, but birds had to be worked for, and we actually only saw 2 new species during these early hours, and both were seen from the reception area – Green Ibis as we set off, and Violet-headed Hummingbird on our return. We spent 10 minutes exploring the reception area again, picking up many of the species that we had already seen, such as Band-backed Wren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Masked Tityra, Grey-capped Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, and Passerini’s Tanager. We then started to explore the secondary forest, hoping to see Jacamar, but we did come across many Black-mandibled & Keel-billed Toucans, and a small group of Collared Aracaris. Once over the river, we picked out Clay-coloured Robin, Wood Thrush, and a couple of White-collared Manakins. We headed for the previous roosting site of Crested Owls, but all we had here was perched Green Ibis, and fleeting views of a fleeing Rufous Motmot (identified by the guide on call). Back at reception, a pair of Variable Seedeaters were feeding on the lawn – quite tricky in this part of Costa Rica, since they are the all black variety.
Once our guide had departed, we continued to try to pin down the Violet-headed Hummingbird, when a pair of Crested Guans flew in to one of trees adjacent to reception. Looking decidedly prehistoric, they proved to be quite a large bird, showing their only smudge of colour which was a red throat sack. The flowering trees behind reception added White-necked Jacobin to the Costa Rican list. The best part of the morning was when we returned to the secondary forest, when after 100m, we came across a bird party, initiated by Passerini’s Tanager, followed by Long-tailed Hermit, and finally a perched Fasciated Antshrike in the dense foliage. 20m further on was a collection of Thrushes, which contained at least one Pale-vented Robin – a tailless individual which showed the white vent clearly. Most of the other birds also seemed to have the dark bill of this species, although the vents were difficult to see in the subdued light. A pair of Grey-breasted Wood-rails appeared just behind them. A little further again, and we saw the first of 3 Plain Xenops, with Streak-headed Woodcreeper close by. This track eventually terminated at the first security gate to the La Selva entrance drive, so we doubled back on ourselves, and stumbled across a stunning female Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker. If not enough, a male Fasciated Antshrike appeared in the same tree, uncharacteristically out in the open almost within touching distance from us. Back at the car park, we added another male Violaceous Trogon to our list. As if in a parting gesture, the fifth White-collared Manakin of the morning was found.
After leaving La Selva, we headed South towards Braullio Carillo national park. We were looking for a place called El Tapir, but the location we found seemed deserted. So we ended up at Quebrada Gonzalves, one of the main entrances to Braullio Carillo, which had the added benefit of security guards at the car park, and paid the $6 each to walk the rain forest. We navigated the shorter of the two trails (1.6km), which took about an hour. This offered a typical rain forest experience – dense forest with almost constant heavy rain. Birding was also very heavy, with only a single Wood Thrush, a small party of unidentified passerines, and 2 separate Sulphur-rumped Warblers for our efforts. Back at reception, we spent some time under the canopies watching the surrounding clearing, where we saw a Chestnut-sided Warbler, Olive-backed Euphonia, and a group of Collared Aracaris.
Hotel Buena Vista
We had planned to spend our last night at the Hotel Bougainvillea, since it was recommended for two Ground-sparrows which are very difficult to pick up anywhere else in the country, so we had booked our room some months earlier. The hotel isn’t particularly easy to find, but we managed without any problems, so were annoyed and disappointed to find that the agency we had used, CostaRicaLink, had failed to pay the hotel to secure our booking, and the hotel was otherwise fully booked. After some deliberation, we managed to book a room at short notice back at the Buena Vista, and this proved to be very rewarding. We didn’t have to return the hire car until noon for an early afternoon flight, so had the full morning to look for birds again at this productive hostelry. The omens looked good at first light, when we found the first Swainson’s Thrush of the trip along the entrance drive to the owner’s house, and the Blue-crowned Motmots only seen on the first morning reappeared here as well. With more time to spare than that first morning, we took the opportunity to explore the coffee plantation to the front of the property, and this was where we spent most of our time, since it was very bird rich, and incredibly offered not only birds which we hadn’t seen through the week, but also totally new birds to our world lists. Early wins came in the form of a couple of Vireos – singing Yellow-olive and foraging Yellow-throated. Then came the first of 2 new Hummingbirds. A pair of long billed hummers were in flight together, with one subsequently posing for long enough on a branch to clinch Plain-capped Starthroat. While searching for this, one or two Rufous-capped Warblers passed through. Overhead, a very close Zone-tailed Hawk passed over, the first of two sightings for the morning. Last find was the second of the new Hummingbirds – a Steely-vented which showed a marked preference for one of the flowering trees, returning to feed and rest here regularly. It often tussled with one of the resident, and slightly larger, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. When at rest, which usually was only for very short periods, the white “socks” could often be discerned.