Best of Costa Rica Mar 22—Apr 03, 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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Simply put, Costa Rica is remarkable! There is simply nowhere else in the world where such a small country has so many natural treasures to interest the visitor. 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 javelina 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 pairs of Scarlet Macaws over a busy road. We experienced all of this and much, much more on our 2008 Best of Costa Rica tour, as we roamed from the lush Caribbean slope and lowlands to the Pacific moist forests and the temperate forests at high elevations. In each region we found much to delight us.

We began in the lush subtropical forests in the Bosque de Paz area, with comical Prong-billed Barbets duetting, a pair of Orange-bellied Trogons, a bonanza of hummingbirds at the feeders, and gorgeous Spangle-cheeked Tanagers and Golden-browed Chlorophonias at the fruiting figs. Black Guans scrambling all over the feeders were a ridiculous sight; at night, those same feeders attracted a family of pacas, a rarely-seen large rodent. At our first stop in the Carara region we thrilled to Scarlet Macaws in flight, spectacularly lit up by the low afternoon sun. They would be a consistent favorite during our time in this region, but here we also tracked down shy forest skulkers like a Great Tinamou in the trail; had great looks at a ridiculous number of Ruddy Quail-Doves; watched a gorgeous pair of very quiet Brown-hooded Parrots at a nest-hole; saw a rarely-seen Scaly-throated Leaftosser in the dark understory; and found normally shy Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins coming down to bathe right in front of us. We also found five species of gorgeous trogons, including the endemic Baird's, sometimes making it hard to tear our eyes away from them to enjoy the plethora of flycatchers, antbirds, and other forest insectivores foraging through the forest. White-whiskered Puffbirds sat as still as bumps on a log for us, and we found gorgeous Turquoise-browed Motmots in an open garden. A delightful boat trip produced closeups of Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, Wood Storks, and more, but perhaps the ultimate highlight of this very birdy area was the trifecta of Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, and Chestnut-backed Antbird that paraded all around us for a remarkable 15 minutes of closeup viewing!

Our first morning at the world-famous La Selva Field Station in the wet Caribbean lowlands was almost overwhelming, with birds popping out everywhere after an overnight rain. The rarest sightings of the morning were the Pied Puffbird singing from high in the canopy and the male Great Curassow that ran down the path in front of us, but we ended the day with a stunning run of big, special birds in the afternoon: a magnificent Agami Heron perched quietly in the forest shadows; a pair of Great Green Macaws that flew out of the forest directly overhead; yet another Great Tinamou; and, finally, a pair of Crested Guans feeding in a fruiting tree so close at hand we could almost touch them! While in this area we also saw toucans galore; Rufous and Broad-billed motmots hooting and honking inside the rainforest; showy woodpeckers like the Chestnut-colored and Rufous-winged; odd Snowy Cotingas; Fasciated Antshrikes at point-blank range and a Bare-crowned Antbird in the scope; and sneaky specialties like Black-throated and Stripe-breasted wrens, their songs spectacular.

As we left this region, final stops in the foothills produced "best-ever" looks at several male Snowcaps, and, for some, a stunning male Lattice-tailed Trogon. After the heat and humidity of the tropical lowlands, it was refreshing to end our tour in the delightful Savegre Valley, along a rushing mountain stream amidst the magnificent temperate oak forest. Birds are not as abundant here, but a very high percentage of them are endemic to these highlands and quite unique. We were lucky with most of the high-elevation specialties—it took about 30 seconds to find the Volcano Junco—and had great looks at such scarce ones as Sulphur-winged Parakeets feeding in the croton trees and a singing Black-thighed Grosbeak. The outstanding bird of the area, however, is the Resplendent Quetzal, and both mornings we observed a veritable fiesta of these special birds, as they fluttered around the fruiting "aguatillo" trees, males chasing the females. Some would argue that this is the most beautiful bird in the world, and we certainly wouldn't disagree.

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