Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Mar 01—09, 2008

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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When the first bird seen at the first stop on a tour is a full-plumaged Resplendent Quetzal, well, you just know it is going to be a great trip! It certainly was, and for one wonderful week we took full advantage of all that Costa Rica has to offer, birding our way down-slope to the rich Caribbean lowlands and then ending in the beautiful and cool mountains of the central region. Everywhere that we went, the birds fell into place. Our first morning, at the lovely La Paz Waterfall Garden, produced a pair of Prong-billed Barbets giving their "war whoop" duet close at hand; gorgeous Silver-throated Tanagers swarming the feeders, amidst them a pair of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers (the books don't do their fabulous colors justice); and eight species of hummingbirds to delight us, including the range-restricted Black-bellied Hummingbird. At another feeding station we found stunning Blue-throated Toucanets and a male Red-headed Barbet so close at hand that 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 near the headquarters, including colorful parrots, toucans, trogons, and tanagers. Two adult King Vultures low overhead gave us exceptionally good looks; a Crested Owl at its day roost and Fasciated Antshrikes on a nest were wonderful surprises shown to us by the local guide; and the male Montezuma Oropendola "falling off his perch" in display was definitely a favorite. We were also treated to mammals like three-toed and two-toed sloths, collared peccaries, and mantled howler monkeys, creatures not often seen in most tropical forests. In the late afternoon our group stood silently between two Great Tinamous that had boldly come out along the footpaths at close range, one of them "freezing" in position in full view for minutes. If that weren't enough for one day, as we walked back to the bus, a male Great Curassow appeared and proceeded to calmly stroll around the parking area!

There is always more to see in a tropical forest as rich as this one, and our second visit to La Selva was as eventful as the first. Pale-billed and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers were lured into great view; we scoped pairs of both Broad-billed and Rufous motmots from the same spot; a surprise Semiplumbeous Hawk perched in the open for us; and we found a sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar sitting quietly in its thicket grotto, while back at the lodge we were entertained by Green Honeycreepers drinking from a coconut and a brilliant Crimson-collared Tanager sneaking in to the bird feeders.

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. Here we thrilled to the Swallow-tailed Kites playing effortlessly up and down the valley at Virgen, watching them from above, at eye level, and over us, while the soaring White and Black-chested hawks seen repeatedly weren’t bad either! Other foothill highlights included an adult and juvenile Fasciated Tiger-Heron fishing along a rushing stream, and a fabulous male Snowcap dancing around the flowering shrubs.

From the foothills we moved to the delightfully cool mountains, descending through the old-growth oakforests 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 Ruddy Treerunner, Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher (so sleek and elegant), and Flame-throated Warbler—all endemic to these highlands. The personable Collared Redstarts seemed to like us, one even landing on a tour participant! At the highest elevations we tracked down several endemics of very restricted range, including fierce-eyed Volcano Juncos in the elfin scrub, odd Large-footed Finches lurking in the stunted bamboo, and stunning Fiery-throated Hummingbirds with their full rainbow of colors. Best of all, fruiting aguacatillo trees just below the lodge were attracting Resplendent Quetzals from far and wide. Considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world, we watched a veritable fiesta of these gems as they fluttered down to pick fruit, 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! All too soon it was back to San Jose, our week in Costa Rica over, but not forgotten.