Best of Costa Rica Mar 17—29, 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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Simply put, there is nowhere like Costa Rica for easily viewing an incredible array of Neotropical wildlife. Ecotourism has become one of their biggest businesses and throughout the country people have made it a more friendly place for wildlife. Where else do troops of javelinas practically stroll along with the observers, or flocks of toucans troop into isolated trees just overhead, or curassows parade through a parking area? Where else does one see a tinamou slowly strolling a few feet from the group, or hummingbirds vying with tanagers at incredibly active feeding stations, or quetzals carrying on right beside the cabins? Consider the pair of Black-and-white Owls in the town plaza that have become local mascots, or the huge American crocodiles that cause daily traffic jams along the coast highway, or the pair of Scarlet Macaws tussling and preening in a nesting tree beside a highway. We experienced all of this and much, much more on our 2007 Best of Costa Rica tour, as we roamed from the lush Caribbean slope and lowlands to the Pacific dry forests and the temperate forests at high elevations. Each different region and habitat brought its highlights.

At our first stop, Monteverde, it initially seemed that the wind might blow us off the mountain, but we found the cloud forests of the reserve to be sheltered, and the misty conditions were great for bird activity. Huge Black Guans silently sat beside the trail, mixed-flock after flock of small understory birds came out into view for us, a pair of Prong-billed Barbets appeared like magic in a hummingbird-filled garden (we had heard their ringing "war whoops" all morning), and we ended the day with long studies of Resplendent Quetzals that sat and posed for 15 minutes. No other bird is more symbolic of these cloud forests than this gorgeous creature.

Carara National Park, in the moist Pacific lowlands, was as birdy as ever, and here the action was almost nonstop. This group liked trogons?really liked trogons?and here we had multiple looks at four species, including the gorgeous endemic Baird's. Sometimes it was hard to tear our eyes away from them to enjoy the plethora of flycatchers, antbirds, and other forest insectivores foraging around them. An afternoon hike into the shady forest produced a fabulous Great Tinamou wading in a small stream, while zippy Blue-crowned and Red-capped manakins came to bathe in the nearby pools, and a fabulous Streak-chested Antpitta hopped down the trail in front of us.

The next morning we saw 50 species before leaving the parking lot, with Turquoise-browed Motmots and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans the highlights. As we entered the forest we found a pair of Scarlet Macaws quietly working on their nest hole in a huge emergent tree, our viewing interrupted when a pair of stunning Fiery-billed Aracaris called high overhead and finally sat in the open for great scope views. Other highlights here included Boat-billed Herons at remarkably close range, a pair of Spectacled Owls, a surprise pair of Common Potoos at dusk, displaying male Orange-collared Manakins, a Northern Royal-Flycatcher that half-raised its remarkable crest, and the delightful Buff-rumped Warbler foraging on a fungi-covered log.

In the lush forests of the Caribbean foothills we found our first stunning Golden-hooded and Crimson-collared tanagers, while secretive Sooty-faced Finches and a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush skulked nearby. Eleven species of hummingbirds in one day were topped by the endemic Black-bellied Hummingbird and numerous Brown Violet-ears, a species not often seen.

The La Selva Field Station in the wet Caribbean lowlands was even more active than usual, and at times the birds came so fast and furious it was almost overwhelming. The misty mornings seemed to bring out the puffbirds; we found a pair of Pieds right over the patio our first day, and the second day a White-necked was sitting out in the drizzle. There were toucans galore, showy Chestnut-colored and Pale-billed woodpeckers, male Snowy Cotingas sitting up boldly (but hard to see against the cloudy sky), Rufous and Broad-billed motmots hooting and honking inside the tall forest, sneaky specialty wrens like the Black-throated and Stripe-breasted, and a Fasciated Antshrike foraging at close range. I still can't get over the magnificent male Great Curassow that boldly paraded across the parking area and past the dormitories while we snapped pictures! As we left this region, a final stop in the foothills produced "best-ever" looks at the fabulous male Snowcap and a male Black-crested Coquette almost close enough to touch, while a male Lattice-tailed Trogon sneaked into a nearby fruiting tree.

Our final days afield were spent in the cool and very different temperate oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte. Birds are not as abundant here, but a very high percentage of them are endemic to these highlands and quite unique. Here the odd Large-footed and Yellow-thighed finches could hardly be missed as they hopped around in the open, stunning Spangle-cheeked Tanagers came down to feed on berries at close range, and we watched an elegant pair of Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers at their nest. We were lucky with the high-elevation specialties and it took little effort to see the unique Timberline Wren and Volcano Junco, while Sulphur-winged Parakeets feeding in the croton trees were a real bonus. Resplendent Quetzals were present in the area, sneaking into fruiting "aguacatillo" trees to feed and quietly incubating with only the long plumes visible in the nest hole.

All too soon it was time to return to San Jose, our grand tour of the highlights of Costa Rica complete.