Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 10—18, 2007

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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It is no surprise that Costa Rica is one of the world's most popular birding destinations. With spectacular and varied terrain, birds in abundance, an astounding profusion of plants, and good facilities in a friendly setting, Costa Rica has it all. For one wonderful week we took full advantage of these offerings, birding our way down-slope to the rich Caribbean lowlands and then ending our trip in the beautiful and cool mountains.

Everywhere that we went the birds fell into place. Our first stop, at the lovely La Paz Waterfall Garden, produced Prong-billed Barbets almost close enough to touch, gorgeous Silver-throated Tanagers swarming the feeders, and eight species of hummingbirds to delight us. At another feeding station we found a stunning male Red-headed Barbet and a pair of Blue-throated Toucanets so close we had to back off to photograph them!

Our first day at the world-famous La Selva Field Station was simply amazing, with a seemingly endless feast of tropical birds appearing along the entry road and at fruiting trees at the headquarters, including colorful parrots, toucans, trogons, and tanagers. More secretive, but just as noteworthy, were the Cinnamon Woodpeckers, a Fasciated Antshrike in the scope for great views, and the Great Antshrike that popped up out of nowhere. A male Great Curassow that boldly strolled from the forest across the lawn to a fruiting guava tree made for an ecstatic ending to the day. Or so we thought, until we spotted the Crested Guan sitting right over the parking lot just before boarding the bus to leave!

After exploring the foothills at Virgen del Socorro for a day, highlighted by several pairs of elegant White Hawks perched and soaring right overhead, we returned to La Selva. Every day in a tropical forest is different, and on this visit we thrilled to a calm pair of roosting Crested Owls, while a Great Tinamou that boldly stepped onto the trail right in front of us was a wonderful surprise. Other highlights were a tiny Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant lured down from the canopy (we later found a nest of one), a mixed-flock with the rare Rufous-winged Woodpecker and elegant Black-striped Woodcreeper in it, and a surprise American Pygmy Kingfisher sitting motionless in a damp thicket while we watched displaying White-collared Manakins. As we left we spotted a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars dust-bathing in the road, reminding us that there is always more to see in a tropical forest as rich as this one.

The lush Caribbean foothills are the wettest environment in Central America, difficult to bird but home to some of the least-known species of the region. For us, a morning's stop here produced a fabulous male Snowcap dancing around the flowering shrubs, a brilliant Lattice-tailed Trogon that finally revealed himself, and an immense mixed-flock that rampaged through the forest around us in a veritable blizzard of birds. At least 25 species were foraging in the flock, led by the rarely-seen White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and it made for a frenetic 30 minutes of birding.

From the foothills we moved up-slope to the delightfully cool mountains, descending from the oak forests on Cerro de la Muerte to our lodging along a rushing stream in a deep valley. In these pleasant surroundings we found a flower-filled garden swarming with hummingbirds and mixed-flocks that included beauties like the Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstart, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager?the books don't do their brilliant colors justice. Best of all, fruiting aguacatillo trees right in front of our cabins were attracting Resplendent Quetzals from far and wide. Considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world, we watched at least seven of these gems as they played in the trees, at times the males courting and chasing the females and at other times just sitting still digesting their meals. This is perhaps the ultimate Costa Rican bird experience!

Later we spent time tracking down the unique high-mountain endemics of very restricted range, including a Timberline Wren singing in our faces, Large-footed Finches scrambling around in the dense elfin forest, and stunning Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, before ending with the Volcano Junco, known from only a few sites at the highest elevations in these mountains. All too soon it was back to San Jose, our week in Costa Rica over but not forgotten.