January 5th-19th 2010
Jonathan Barnard - (Altiplano Tours)
Santiago - (Local driver and guide)
Monica & Brett Edmonds
Kaye & Tim Grove
Lindy & Paul Wright
Day 1 – London to San Jose, via Madrid
Our group of eight participants met at Heathrow at an ungodly hour, quiet and preferring to remain each with their thoughts rather than to engage friends or strangers in conversation, as we waited to board our 0600hrs Iberia flight to Madrid.
We had all livened up by the time we reached the attractive Barajas terminal in Madrid and had time to enjoy a coffee and tostada with queso and membrillio, before catching our connecting flight to the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, where we were met by Santiago, our driver and part-time guide for the fortnight.
By the time we had collected our bags and cleared immigration in was about five-thirty in the afternoon and we were glad to be heading straight to the Rodeo Country Inn where we would spend our next two nights.
Following an early dinner and a brief talk about our following day’s activities, we were ready to turn in for an early night, after what had been a long a tiring journey; especially as we had a 0515 wake-up call set for the following day.
We only managed to get one bird onto our Costa Rican list – Great-tailed Grackle!
Day 2 - Cerro de la Muerte
Following an early wake-up call, we left the hotel just before 0600 en route to the highlands of Cerro de la Muerte (the Hill of Death) where we were to have breakfast at the Paraiso del Quetzal before taking a walk through this cloud forest at an elevation of about 8,450ft. We had dressed warmly, most of us wearing micro-fleeces, as at that time of day and altitude it can be quite chilly. We also carried lightweight waterproofs as the rain can come at anytime in a cloud forest.
However, before leaving the hotel we managed to add five birds to our list including Rufous-naped Wren (whose loud, melodious, liquid warble was to become a familiar sound to us), Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Inca Dove and the National Bird of Costa Rica, Clay-coloured Robin, looking like a pale brown juvenile male Blackbird.
En route we added a few more, including Eastern Meadowlark and Band-tailed Pigeon as well as our first mammal of the trip, Brazilian Rabbit.
I explained that this was pretty much our only good chance of seeing Resplendent Quetzal and a few other cloud forest specialities on this trip, bringing the response from Tim Grove ‘If you don’t get us a Quetzal it’s going to be a frosty fortnight in the back of this bus!’. This nicely set the tone for the gentle rivalry and keen, good-natured humour that was to be a feature of this trip!
Arriving at Paraiso del Quetzal we were met by Jorge, our guide for the morning, and lead to an eagerly awaited breakfast, which consisted of the Costa Rican staple of rice, beans and scrambled eggs.
For most on the trip this was their first experience of Neotropical birding and the news species came so quickly that it was hard to absorb so much information all at once.
The hummingbird feeders gave excellent views and photographic opportunities of Magnificent, Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds, White-throated Mountain-Gem and Green Violetear.
A walk through the cloud forest on this private reserve added Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finches as well as both species of Silky-Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and those typical birds of mature forest, Ruddy Treerunner and Buffy Tuftedcheek.
After nearly two hours of walking through the forest we had still not come across a Quetzal so Jorge decided to change direction and head to another part of the woo. A Quetzal, still some way off, responded to his whistled imitation of its call, through the light drizzle that had been falling for the past forty minutes, and after a further short walk we were rewarded with the sight of first one pair, then another of these magnificent birds, so redolent of Neotropical forests.
We returned to the lodge restaurant for lunch, excited by tour first morning in Costa Rica and adding Black-capped Flycatcher and three warblers (Flame-throated, Black-cheeked and Collared Redstart) on the return walk.
After lunch we visited the lower altitude village of Savegre, (where in the growing warmth of the day we were able to shed our outer layers), in search of the diminutive Scintillant Hummingbird which we found in the small garden of a cafe, providing us with both some close-up photo opportunities and also a good cup of coffee!
A walk through some nearby woods added Mountain Elaenia, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Acorn Woodpecker as well as a group of 15 Sulphur-winged Parakeets who performed a fly-by, showing clearly where they got their name.
We then headed back to San Jose for our second night.
Day 3 - San Jose to Villa Lapas
Following a 0630 breakfast at the Rodeo Country Inn we set of at 0730 for Villa Lapas on the edge of the Carara National Park.
Before leaving San Jose we added Blue-Gray Tanager and our second mammal, Variegated Squirrel.
En route we stopped at a dam near the town of Orotina for about twenty minutes. Here we saw Muscovy Duck and Blue-winged Teal as well as Least Grebe, Boat-billed Heron, Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos. A Spectacled Caiman slept on a mud-bank in the middle of the river.
We stopped at the town square in Orotina because, for the past fifteen years, it has been one of the most reliable places in Costa Rica to see Black-and-White Owl, as a pair has been in long-term residence there. However, we had heard that they had left the square and had not been seen there for about two weeks. Our careful searching proved this to be the case and, although we saw the Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth that has also been in residence for a number of years as well as Hoffman’s Woodpecker – it appears that Mr. Hoffman spent some time in these parts!
Leaving Orotina we stopped at the bridge across the River Tarcoles. Lazing in the shallows and on the riverbanks were about 40 American Crocodiles, some of which were very large adults. About 8 horses were quenching their thirst nearby at the water’s edge and we wondered how many of these ended up as a meal for these large reptiles.
We added four heron species to our tally, including a very attractive Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Great Blue Heron.
We arrived at Villa Lapas at about 1130.
The accommodation at Villa Lapas consists of a couple of terraces of en-suite rooms as well as a few semi-detached bungalows – in which we were staying - set back a little from the main terrace. The whole is set in attractive gardens on the bank of a small river with forest on the far side. The gardens provide some good pre-breakfast birding.
A walk around the grounds before lunch proved fruitful and we got good views of a perched Laughing Falcon, as well as Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and Baltimore Oriole.
In the afternoon came one of the highlights of the trip as we took a boat ride through the wonderful mangrove swamps at the mouth of the River Tarcoles. The trip, which lasted about two and a half hours from 1530 to sunset, took us through this extraordinary habitat of river channels bordered by mangrove trees with thick forest behind them. The area provides one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in Costa Rica, both in terms of variety and sheer numbers of birds present. We saw 57 bird species from the boat, the highlights of which included Black Guan, Scarlet Macaw, Anhinga, White Ibis, Grey-headed Kite, Common Black Hawk, Magnificent Frigatebird, Roseate Spoonbill, Yellow-naped and Red-lored Parrots, Chestnut-mandibled and Keel-billed Toucans and Lesser Nighthawk!
Day 4 - Villa Lapas and Carara National Park
A pre-breakfast walk around the grounds of Villa Lapas proved to be a good idea and those of us who took part saw Rose-throated Becard as well as a pair of Violaceous Trogons and two pairs of Slaty-tailed Trogons in large trees near the restaurant. The trogons obligingly allowed some good photographs to be taken.
The morning walk through the National Park at Carara was interesting for the non-avian encounters which included Mantled Howler Monkey, White-faced Capuchin Monkey, Collared Peccary, Spiny-tailed Iguana, Plumed Basilisk and the magical Peleides Blue Morpho Butterfly, though these animals were all upstaged by a sighting of Northern Tamandua - a lovely medium-sized species of anteater that Santiago spotted making its way up a tree. Unfortunately, not all of the group managed to get good views of this shy animal as it climbed higher to hide in the treetops.
Birds included great views of a Scarlet Macaw at its nest hole thirty feet up a large tree, Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, Pale-billed Woodpecker and 7 Boat-billed Herons roosting over a small body of water.
Following lunch back a Villa Lapas we entered a different part of the National Park, walking through denser jungle, in the afternoon. In this thicker forest we were fortunate to see 3 Great Tinamous as well as Black-faced Antthrush and Chestnut-backed Antbird and Lesser Elaenia. We also saw 4 Central Amercian Agoutis – like large, smooth-haired, tail-less rats and that apparently taste ‘better than chicken’!
Day 5 - Villa Lapas to Monteverde
On our pre-breakfast walk at 0600 quite a few tanagers were in the grounds – Blue Gray, Summer, Golden-hooded and Palm. In an old stilted lodge house built around a large tree we found four roosting White-lined Bats (Saccopteryx bilineata).
Santiago stopped the bus briefly in an area of degraded forest with a few settlements and we searched the area without finding much of interest for nearly half an hour. Then as we were boarding the bus to pull out a pair of Fiery-billed Aracari’s put in a noisy appearance in a tree next to the bus. We were very pleased with this sighting as the fiery-billed are much less common than Collared Aracari.
Santiago suggested that, as we had the time, we could call in again to Orotina and have another look for the Black-and-white Owls. One of them had returned, so we counted ourselves quite fortunate to have caught up with this most attractive of owls. To our great surprise, and, I think, that of Santiago as well, we found another pair of Fiery-billed Aracaris in the town square!
We arrived in Monteverde shortly before 1300 to an overcast and drizzly afternoon with a wind that seemed to be picking up by the hour. But we drove the short distance from our hotel to a cafe on the edge of the famous reserve, which has a few hummingbird feeders. Her we were delighted by the large Violet Sabrewing together with Coppery-headed Emerald, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violetear and Green Hermit. The feeders were also regularly visited by Bananaquits. Even with such close proximity, photographing these fast moving birds in the failing light proved very difficult.
By late afternoon the wind had moved up a couple of gears and was giving the trees a battering, dislodging epiphytes and bringing down branches. This was accompanied by intermittent rain, ranging from a driven drizzle to heavy downpours. Things did not look good for the following day.
Day 6 - Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The strong winds had blown relentlessly all night and we awoke to see why this area is called cloud forest! The heavy rain that had been another meteorological feature of the night persisted until morning but after daybreak began to die down to a light but fairly constant drizzle.
At 0800 the men decided to venture to the cloud forest reserve (that had been shut for three of the past four days due to the high winds) whilst the women chose to go into town to visit the reptile and butterfly houses and catch up on a bit of shopping!
Our guide, Bernal, worked hard to find some birds in the reserve as we put up stoically with the less than ideal birdwatching conditions – though in truth, the conditions were not much worse than a January day on the Isle of Sheppey, and at least we had a few trees to protect us from the bulk of the rain.
Considering the conditions, we had a pretty good first couple of hours, finding a pair of Orange-bellied Trogons, Red-tailed Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and Three-striped Warbler.
However, as we re-trod our steps to try another part of the reserve we were told by one of the wardens that they were closing the reserve for safety reasons and that we should have to leave. We were not particularly happy about this as, although the wind kept up, the rain was of little bother and we wondered just how unsafe we could be in the reserve. We were discussing this as we entered the reserve car park when a gust of wind brought a loud cracking sound from somewhere high above us and a large tree branch, covered in bromeliads, broke off and smashed into one of the cards parked below, badly denting the roof and smashing the rear windscreen. So, we realised why they had taken the decision to shut the reserve.
We decided to head back to the cafe with hummingbird feeders that we had visited yesterday for a coffee. We added Magenta-throated Woodstar to the hummingbird tally and were fortunate to see an Olingo (a relative of the Kinkajou) in a nearby tree. Walking down to meet the bus, with the sun trying to break through the thick cloud, we came across a pair of Blue-crowned Motmots and a Ruddy Pigeon.
The morning had not turned out to be a complete disaster but there was absolutely no sign of the Three-wattled Bellbirds that are usually such a musical feature of the treetops in the area. The wind and rain must have driven them to seek shelter away from their usual treetop positions.
A small group of Brown Jays provided the afternoon highlight.
Day 7 - Monteverde to Hacienda Solimar
By early evening the storm had picked up again and continued throughout the night, causing quite a lot of damage on the Caribbean side of the mountains.
An early morning spot of birding through the hotel window produced only Great-tailed Grackle and a pair of Palm Tanagers.
By 0800 we were breakfasted and ready to leave for Hacienda Solimar in the lower, dryer Pacific coast state of Guanacaste. The poor weather continued as we crossed the central cordillera but as we began our descent to the Pacific lowlands the rain stopped and the temperature warmed up as we left the cloud cover behind; however, the winds did not completely abate.
Just over two hours after leaving the tempests of Monteverde we found ourselves in the much warmer, drier, welcome climate of Guancaste as our bus pulled up at the ranch that was to be our home for the next three nights.
Looking around the ranch house before lunch we added Black-headed Trogon, Pacific Screech Owl, White-lored Gnatwren, Ruby-throated and Cinnamon Hummingbirds, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Jabiru, Northern Parula as well as two Oriole species and Common Vampire Bat to our list.
Hacienda Solimar is a working cattle ranch, covering about 5,000 acres and supporting several hundred head of Brahmin cattle. Our timber built en-suite rooms, in what used to be the family ranch house, were cosily dark inside, if a little lacking in privacy due to the thin nature of the timber walls.
The climate here remains fairly stable and constant throughout the year, ranging from warm to hot but rarely getting chilly at all and so the windows have no glass in them but instead are protected from the outside by two layers of wire mesh, one with holes small enough to keep out insects. The bedrooms have curtains across the windows, fixed to rails at the top and bottom to stop them blowing in the wind.
From the terrace, by the small swimming pool, outside the back of the house one can sit in a rocking chair and look out across the well kept ranch, whilst also keeping an eye out for birds and mammals. I love this place.
After a post-lunch siesta through the hottest part of the day, we set off just after 1500 on a short drive to visit some of the pastureland interspersed with irrigation dykes that are a feature of this man-made landscape.
Here in the long grass and damp pastures we saw a good number of herons, including 40+ Great White Egrets, 2 Green Herons and at least a dozen Great Blues and smaller numbers of Tricolored Herons..
Huge Ringed Kingfishers, Northern Jacanas and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks all showed well together with Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, Limpkin, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Killdeer and American Kestrel.
Back at the ranch we settled down on the terrace with a cold beer and watched a Lesser Nighthawk hunt for insects around the trees before disappearing into the oncoming night.
Day 8 – Hacienda Solimar, dry gallery forest and Conchal Salinas
The early risers saw a beautiful Turquoise-browed Motmot and Brown-crested Flycatcher among other species on a pre-breakfast stroll around the ranch house.
After breakfast we went for a five hour walk through the dry gallery forest typical of the region. Here, in a dank part of the river we saw American Pygmy kingfisher, looking almost as diminutive as a hummingbird as it sallied from its perch to snatch a fish fry from the water’s surface. Insect eating birds were in good evidence in the forest and we came across Tropical Gnatcatcher, Common Tody Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Banded Wren, and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.
We also had very good views of White-necked Puffbird and, of the parrot species, White-fronted Parrot and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, though the highlights of the afternoon were a close encounter with a stunning male Long-tailed Manakin and a pair of magnificent Spectacled Owls roosting at eye level deep in the forest.
A couple of Ospreys flew over the ranch during our siesta.
In the afternoon we set of at about four o’clock to catch the high tide at the Chonchal Salinas (saltworks) near Colorado.
The salt pans did not contain the large numbers of waders that I had seen on my last visit here, but nevertheless, a good number of species was present and we saw Western, Spotted, Semi-palmated, Solitary and Least Sandpipers together with Grey and Semi-palmated Plovers, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilt, Marbled Godwit and the American hudsonicus subspecies of Whimbrel.
Laughing Gulls and a few Royal Terns flew overhead with a solitary Franklin’s Gull while in the mangroves that surround the salt works we saw Mangrove Warbler (a subspecies of Yellow Warbler) and Green-breasted Mango.
As the sun began to set and darkness drew rapidly in, the pointed wings and erratic flight of Lesser Nighthawks drew our attention, and we saw at least 20 of them in the sky at one time. Oh, and a pair of beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flew over!
Day 9 – Hacienda Solimar, secondary dry forest and Estero Madrigal wetlands
A pre-breakfast walk around the ranch house didn’t turn up anything new but gave good views of White-throated Magpie-Jay and Ruby-throated hummingbird whilst crested Caracara and Wood Stork provided the fly-by interest. The highlight of this early morning walk was a Lesser Nighthawk that flew from its roost in a tree directly outside the house.
At 0745 we set off on a walk around some secondary forest, partially degraded but being allowed to re-establish itself. In this more open habitat we almost immediately came across Acadian Flycatcher on the edge of the forest near a large clearing. In this same spot, Santiago whistled in a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl which hung around for a few minutes giving the whole group a good opportunity to see it well.
Five Rufous-naped Wrens noisily made their way round a dead tree which also held Rose-throated Becard and Yellow Warbler.
A Hook-billed Kite perched in a tree turned towards us, showing quite clearly where its name comes from. Hummingbird interest was provided by Steely-Vented, and Cinnamon Hummingbirds and Green-breasted Mango.
Streaked, Dusky-capped and Boat-billed Flycatchers all allowed quite close approaches and the open nature of this forest also allowed clear views of Black-throated Trogon, Broad-winged Hawk, Black-crowned Tityra and Lesser Greenlet.
The day followed the usual pattern of out early for about five hours, back for lunch and a siesta until the afternoon excursion at about 1500. This day was no exception and shortly after 3 pm we set off for the beautiful lake and wetlands of Estero Madrigal.
Near the lake, in an area of open rough pasture we came across a group of at least 10 White-nosed Coatis. These delightful animals, upon seeing us, stopped their wandering and either stood up on their hind legs or climbed up nearby trees to have a look at us before continuing unconcernedly on their journey.
Two Ospreys flew overhead, giving us a hint that we were near a large body of water, but we were not expecting the abundance of wildlife that greeted us in these surroundings of extraordinary beauty. The trees around the lake held over 20 Wood Storks as well as 200+ Cattle Egrets as well as at least six each of Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Boat-billed, Green and Great Blue Herons.
White Ibis and Limpkin fed in the shallows as Northern Jacanas played around them.
As we walked along the lake edge a couple of very large American Crocodiles moved slowly through the water towards us, their nostrils and eyes and tail tips visible above the water, before, still swimming in our direction they submerged silently and without a ripple. We all stepped back a little from the lake edge!
Anhingas and Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers kept watch from trees along the water’s edge.
Other birds present included Turquoise-browed Motmot, several groups of Groove-billed Ani, Muscovy Duck, Plain Ground Dove, Scrub Euphonia and about seven Eastern Meadowlarks.
Empty snail shells, the occupants having been eaten by Snail Kites, littered the lake surrounds; a group of four of these kites sat in a tree on a small island.
Day 10 – Hacienda Solimar to Selve Verde Lodge
Today was largely one of travelling cross country as we made our way from the Pacific to the Caribbean side of the country across the central mountain range past Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal.
Saying goodbye to the small group of Common Vampire Bats roosting outside my room I climbed on board the bus with the rest of the group. A pair of Yellow-naped Parrots called noisily around the ranch house and, from the bus, as we were leaving Hacienda Solimar we stopped to admire a pair of White-fronted Parrots at their nest hole in a dead tree as a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flew past.
Lake Arenal is the largest body of fresh water in Costa Rica and we made several stops as we drove around it. In the semi-open areas of woodland around the lake we saw three or four Grey Kites, as well as Brown Jay, Black-cowled Oriole, Collared Aracari, Montezuma Oropendola, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Passerini’s Tanager.
A pair of Collared Peccaries disturbed a Black Phoebe as Northern Rough-winged Swallows feed on insects overhead.
A stop for lunch turned up a couple of House Sparrows, which seem to have made their way worldwide from their Old World origins, as well as pair of native Rufous-collared Sparrows.
We arrived at Selva Verde Lodge at about 1515 and in the trees around our stilted lodge huts we saw Keel-billed and Chestnut Mandibled Toucans, Violaceous Trogon, about seven Gray-headed Chachalacas.
We then made our way to the bar, which overlooks the Rio Sarapiqui, where we saw Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Summer Tanager, Palm Tanager and Buff-throated Saltator.
We then walked across the new bridge that has been built across the river to replace the old bridge that had been washed away a couple of years previously. The new bridge is in a better position from an engineering point of view (in that its foundations are not being constantly eroded, as they were with the old bridge) but from a birding perspective does not cross the river at such an interesting spot, nor does it give such good views of the nearby shallow riverbed habitat. However, from the bridge we were able to scan up and down the river, searching the distant but visible areas of exposed stones – classic Sunbittern habitat – for this iconic bird, but without any luck. Then Santiago tapped me on the shoulder, laughing quietly – directly below us, on the river bank, a Sunbittern walked slowly among the stones and patches of grass; visible for a couple of minutes before disappearing below the overhanging trees. So, we managed to ‘tick’ Sunbittern but were not fortunate enough to see it show off its stunning wing pattern.
Day 11 – Virgen de Socorro and River Sarapiqui boat trip.
On my previous visit to Costa Rica, two years ago, I returned to Vera’s Hummingbird Cafe, a small cafe with a wonderful view across the forest and La Paz waterfall, perched precariously on the edge of a steep drop with a number of other small houses and shops that made up the village. But all this had gone, thrown down the mountainside in the earthquake that had shaken the country in the previous year. Despite their house sliding 150 metres down the mountainside, Vera and her family had survived the earthquake, though it very sadly killed 35 others from the village.
The road that I had driven twice before, down to the old and new bridges that cross a tributary of the Sarapiqui at Virgen de Scoorro was closed to traffic and still impassable to most vehicles following the earthquake; but as it was walk-able we decided to make our way to the bridges on foot.
All around us large areas of once lush, forest-covered hillsides had been laid bare by giant landslides that left dark scares of open earth and rock running like huge gashes through the remaining trees. The river, once hidden by dense forest, was now exposed and opened to view in many areas. But, nature is a remarkable thing, and already the hillsides were being re-colonised by grasses and other small plants and the first of the ‘pioneer’ trees, the fast growing Cecroipa and Balsa had taken hold.
Across the scarred valley we encountered several birds of prey including Broad-winged, Short-tailed and Roadside Hawks and Bat Falcon; but all of these were outshone by a spectacular adult White Hawk that circled the valley, flying at eye level and also directly overhead of us by moment.
Bay-headed, Silvery-throated and Crimson-collared Tanagers moved through the trees with smaller birds such as Tropical Parula, Slate-collared Redstart and Yellow-green Vireo. Flycatchers in the area included Tufted, Olive-sided, the tiny Black-headed Tody- and denizen of fast flowing mountain rivers and streams, Torrent Tyrannulet.
We returned to Selva Verde lodge for lunch, where we added Wood Thrush and Green-and-black Poison Dart Frog to our trip list.
In the afternoon we took a boat trip from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui down the Puerto Viejo and Sarapiqui rivers leading us from the town, through farmland to the primary forest of the La Selva Biological Research Station.
I have always enjoyed the experience of birdwatching from a boat and this trip did not dampen my enthusiasm for river trips – Spotted Sandpipers bobbed at regular intervals along the river banks and in the tangle of bushes overhanging the water we saw Prothonotary and Buff-rumped Warblers, Green Ibis, Mangrove Swallow and Gray-capped Flycatcher. The birding highlight was a Great Curassow perched in the open on a branch of a large tree over the water.
We disturbed a Peregrine from a mud bank and it flew off down river, but the nearby Spectacled Caimans remained motionless, not even blinking at our presence nearby.
Mantled Howler Monkeys and Mealy Parrots called loudly from the treetops, as did Great Green Macaws, though frustratingly these latter birds did not reveal themselves to view.
We also found a roost of about eight Long-nosed Bats aligned along a branch low down and overhanging the river.
Day 12 – Quebrada Gonzales, Braulio Carillio National Park and Puente de Chilamate
Our guide at Selva Verde, Luis Vargas, met those of us who wanted to go on pre-breakfast walks, every morning at 0540 for coffee before heading out at 0600.
This morning we visited the Botanical Gardens where Black-crowned and Masked Tityras formed a mixed flock in a bare tree. Hummingbirds, out in the early morning sun to begin their day-long round of feeding and defending territories included Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Long-billed Hermit, Long-billed Starthroat and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Red-billed Pigeon, White-crowned Parrot, Black-faced Grosbeak, Blue Dacnis and Bright-rumped Atilla were among the 35 species that we encountered on this walk.
Back at the lodge for breakfast Olive-backed Euphonias as well as Shining and Green Honeycreepers were among the birds visiting the feeding platforms outside the dining room to eat the bananas that had been put out for them.
Our morning visit to the Braulio Carillio National Park took us through what must be some of the most wonderful rainforest on Earth. Here in the Quebrada Gonzales (Gonzales Ravine) the mid-elevation forest grows with an almost unbelievable density and lushness. The forest floor is covered in a dense layer of palms and other small bushes whilst trees of all sizes grow up between them and on the trees Strangler Figs grow up to the light whilst lianas and a huge number of aerial roots hang down. And on every plant there seems to be another one growing; vast numbers of epiphytes, orchids, ferns and airplants grow on the trees, creating whole separate ecosystems at different levels under and atop the forest canopy.
Everywhere plants burst forth and shoot upwards or spread outwards in competition for the available light in a frantic burst of life; and at the same time the whole forest reeks of decay as the dead and dying plants return to the earth to be quickly re-absorbed and recycled in one of the most marvellous and fragile environments of our planet.
Truly, this is a place of wonder.
But, due to the incredible density of the vegetation, it is also very difficult to birdwatch here.
As in most forests, including those back home, mixed flocks of small birds travel and forage together through the trees, and our aim was to come across some of these flocks. We searched for them using the traditional combination of moving quietly trough the jungle and then waiting in a spot to see what passes through.
The trouble is, when the birds do come they flit and move so quickly through the trees that it is often difficult to get on them and even when you do the problems are not over as the next question is ‘what was that?’ as one tries to assimilate the features of a bird never seen before. For a newcomer to the Neotropics, such a flock may contain, six, seven, eight or more lifers and a large amount of information has to be digested and assimilated quickly.
Whilst on the move, trying to locate some birds we heard the familiar whistle of a trogon and were surprised to find two species, Lattice-tailed and Black-throated, sitting in close proximity.
The first mixed flock then passed by and we were able to identify Emerald, Tawny-crested, Blue-and-yellow and Olive among the Tanagers together with Red-capped and White-ruffed Manakins and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper.
Our attention was then drawn by a family group of Black-handed Spider Monkeys moving through the trees above us, a baby clinging to its mothers back as they passed by.
The understory then came alive again as a large flock of birds moved through, among which we were able to identify White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, Band-backed Wren, Red-headed Barbet and a bird which sent our guide Luis into excited exclamations – a single Sharpbill – only the fourth time that Luis had ever seen one in years of birding.
We also came across Chestnut-coloured and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers as well as three or four of the more common Black-cheeked Woodpecker.
On the way back to Selva Verde Lodge for lunch we stopped at a garden which has a lot of flowers attractive to hummingbirds and is one of the most reliable spots for Snowcap – the dark plum male, with a pure white cap, being one of the most striking of this striking family. There were plenty of hummingbirds in the garden, including Violet-headed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail and Stripe-tailed Hermit; though we left feeling slightly disappointed as in our half hour search we had not come across a Snowcap.
On the drive back to the lodge for lunch we saw a juvenile King Vulture overhead with a couple of Turkey Vultures.
Our afternoon excursion was to a completely different habitat – the open farm and pastureland at Puente de Chilamate where the birding was much easier, we saw 39 species, new ones for the trip being Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, White-ringed Flycatcher, Plain-colored Tanager, Tropical Pewee and Greyish Saltator.
After an early supper we went on a night walk through the primary forest of the lodge reserve, looking in particular for amphibians and reptiles. We were rewarded with the following; Reticulated, and Emerald Glass Frogs, plus a third species that I am currently trying to identify from a photograph, Valliant’s Frog, Smooth-skinned Toad, Cane Toad and - what is probably the world’s most photographed amphibian - the Red-eyed Leaf Frog.
We also came across a small species of vine snake that I hope shortly to be able to identify from a photograph.
Day 13 – La Selva Biological Research Station
The world renowned Organisation for Tropical Studies sits in a reserve of primary virgin rainforest. Much of this jungle is inaccessible, but about 40km of paths have been cleared through this very dense jungle in order to allow some access.
During the course of the day we made three visits to the area.
On the first, at 0615, we walked down the track that leads up to the reserve, but without entering the reserve itself. This more open habitat of roadside trees and some areas cleared for agriculture (outside of the reserve grounds) hold a wide variety of species and we saw Red-legged honeycreeper, Gray-rumped Swift, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Broad-billed Motmot, Long-billed Gnatwren, Gray-breasted Martin and Great Antshrike.
For our morning visit, at 0740, after breakfast, we walked around the open gardens of the OTS as well as walking through the arboretum – an area of forest in which the undergrowth is cleared three times a year to allow students access to a wide variety of trees..
We were very fortunate to have great views of a Northern Tamandua (a species of anteater) as it walked slowly through the clearing. We had considered ourselves fortunate to have seen one disappearing up a tree in the Carara National Park earlier during our trip; but finding a second and seeing it so well was a great bonus. We also came across a group of Lesser White-lined Sac-winged Bats roosting on the branch of a tree about 10 metres above the river.
The birdwatching proved fruitful too, with Ochre-bellied flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Wedge-billed and Plain Brown Woodcreepers, Double-toothed Kite and a gorgeous Semi-plumbeous Hawk all adding to the interest. From the bridge across the Sarapiqui we saw, in quick succession, Rufous Piha and then Rufous Mourner and were able to compare the size difference well, whilst still fresh in our minds.
For the afternoon visit, at 1515, we ventured deep into the primary forest. This is another wonderful area and the first time I saw it I realised that it was everything that, as a young boy, I had imagined a jungle to be. Full of exotic looking trees and plants, creepers and vines hanging in every space, the movement of animals evident everywhere and the sounds...the sounds of the jungle, with the strange calls of Oropendolas carrying clearly through the trees, mixing with the howls of monkeys and the thousands of chirping, clicking, buzzing sounds of insects and frogs.
Here we found the birds of jungle, Great Tinamou, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, White-whiskered Puffbird and a pair of Bare-necked Umbrellabirds tumbling through the trees. We also came across several mammal species including the first Brown Three-toed Sloth of the trip and, at one point, Howler, Spider and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys visible together as their paths crossed in the jungle canopy.
We remained in this magical forest until dark began to fall, when we had to make our exit before the pitch black of night set in.
In the short twilight, as we made our way back to the bus, 3 Short-tailed Nighthawks flew their erratic flight among the trees as their evening search for insect prey began.
Back at the bus, those who had decided not to venture into the jungle let us know that they had seen two groups of Great Green Macaws – and had the photographic evidence to back up their claim!
Day 14 – Selva Verde Lodge to San Jose Airport
The early risers met, as usual, for coffee at 0540 before setting out for a wander around the Botanical Gardens prior to breakfast and our departure for the airport and our flight home.
We were rewarded with our first sighting of a large Crested Guan and then, as we made our way back into the lodge grounds our attention was caught by a movement in some long grass by a small stream. Moments later a Gray-necked Wood Rail stepped into view and gave us excellent views as it walked along the water’s edge, for about five minutes.
Santiago suggested that we stop off to have another look around the garden where, a couple of days previously we had tried unsuccessfully to find Snowcap. Green Thorntail, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Rufous-throated Hummingbird, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Violet-crowned Woodnymph and Stripe-tailed Hermit all put in appearances. Everyone a beautiful bird, but not the one we had come to see. After nearly half an hour of searching Santiago motioned that we should be making a move so as not to arrive too late at the airport. We started to amble slowly towards the bus when Santiago touched my arm and said quietly ‘Snowcap’. A male sat in a flower bush about four metres away from where we stood. A re-animated group gathered round to admire this beautiful bird.
We set off for the airport in ebullient mood and not even a bit of rain on our short picnic lunch stop could dampen our spirits as we now set our sights on the flight home.
The early evening flight took off just over an hour late and when we arrived in Madrid the following morning we had to run to make our connecting flight. We arrived in Heathrow ahead of our luggage, which had been put on the following flight. So, we waited to collect our bags before bidding one another farewell and heading off to our respective homes at the end of a great trip to a lovely country.