Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 16—24, 2008

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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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 downslope to the rich Caribbean lowlands and then ending our trip in the beautiful and cool mountains of the Cerro de la Muerte.

At every location we visited, the birds fell into place. Our first stop, at the lovely La Paz Waterfall Garden, produced the endemic Prong-billed Barbets, a gorgeous male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis nearly close enough to touch, and stunning Silver-throated and Crimson-collared tanagers swarming the feeders. We had nonstop action with eight species of hummingbirds, including the awesome Violet Saberwing, diminutive Green Thorntail, and very local Black-bellied Hummingbird. At another feeding station we observed a cracking pair of Blue-throated Toucanets, two species of barbets, and the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald, while several mouthwatering Golden-browed Chlorophonias were among a host of multicolored birds feeding in a nearby fruiting fig.

Our two days birding at the world-famous La Selva Field Station were simply amazing, with a seemingly endless procession of tropical birds appearing along the entry road and at fruiting trees at the headquarters, including colorful parrots, toucans, trogons, and tanagers. Particularly noteworthy was a bare tree full of 20+ croaking Keel-billed Toucans. This was followed by great back-to-back studies of both Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers. This year's treats around the forested clearings included several  intimate studies of Fasciated Antshrikes; stunning scope studies of Red-lored, White-crowned,  and Mealy parrots as they fed; White-collared Manakins; Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher; White-ringed Flycatcher; both Yellow-tailed and Black-cowled orioles; and elegant Snowy Cotingas. Our shaded forest walks rewarded us with nice looks at Great Tinamou, Broad-billed and Rufous motmots, Violaceous Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Stripe-breasted Wren, and a White-necked Jacobin on its nest. Great studies of a group of feeding white-faced capuchins, the acrobats of the forest, added to our fun. A wonderful male Hooded Warbler that allowed repeated close looks was one of the highlights for many of us. Multiple male Great Curassows, including one that boldly strolled from the forest across the lawn to a fruiting guava tree, made for a dramatic ending to the day.

At La Quinta, our lovely lodge rewarded us not only with excellent cuisine, but also with a super pre-dawn study of a wonderful pair of Spectacled Owls. As usual the fruit feeders were busy with both Green and Red-legged honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and huge Montezuma Oropendolas. This year, even a Gray-necked Wood-Rail was picking up scraps below! Amongst exquisite and extensive gardens Paul and Pattie found a spectacular Rufous-winged Woodpecker at eye level. The bird was feeding so intently that we all got amazing close views and stunning photos of this regional endemic!

Our exploration of the lush foothills at Virgen del Socorro was highlighted by a stunning pair of Red-headed Barbets that were almost too close to focus on as they fed in a fruiting bush along the road. Several action-packed mixed species flocks kept us on our toes with Golden-bellied Flycatcher leading such gems as Golden-hooded, Emerald, and Bay-headed tanagers, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Tape-playback rewarded us with magnificent studies of the lovely Sooty-faced Finch, and a wonderful display of antiphonal duetting by a responsive pair of Bay Wrens. We also enjoyed close looks at Slaty Spinetail and an extremely responsive Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. The crystal-clear, fast-flowing waters of this region rewarded us with scope studies of Fasciated Tiger-Heron, American Dipper, and the cute Torrent Tyrannulet.

Then, it was on to the lush Caribbean foothills, the wettest environment in Central America, and difficult to bird, but home to some of the least-known species of the region. For us, a morning's stop produced a fabulous male Snowcap and an equally stunning male Black-crested Coquette dancing around the flowering shrubs. We split up the group for the lovely loop trail walk, where highlights included Dull-mantled Antbird coming into tape at our feet, wonderful studies of a Tawny-faced Gnatwren, a stunning Ocellated Antbird, brilliant scope views of an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and a rarely seen male Lattice-tailed Trogon. A couple of immense mixed-flocks, the larger containing some 25+ species, rampaged through the forest around us, led by the rarely-seen White-throated Shrike-Tanager. Other flock members included such gems as Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Emerald and Black-and-yellow tanagers, making for a frenetic 30 minutes of birding.

From the foothills we moved upslope to the delightfully cool oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte, before descending to our lodging along a rushing stream in the San Gerardo 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, odd-looking Yellow-thighed Finches, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstart, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and stunning Flame-colored and Spangle-cheeked tanagers at eye level and so close—the books really don't do their brilliant colors justice! Best of all, fruiting aguacatillo trees were attracting Resplendent Quetzals from far and wide. We watched several of these gems, considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world, 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 some localized high-mountain endemics, including a singing Timberline Wren at point-blank range, Large-footed Finches scrambling around in the dense elfin forest, and the Volcano Junco, which is known from only a few sites at the highest elevations in these mountains. Our night excursion rewarded us with great scope studies of the range-restricted Dusky Nightjar, but hearing its lovely song echoing across the valley was nearly as exciting.

All too soon it was back to San Jose, our week in Costa Rica over but not forgotten. I'm already eagerly awaiting my return visit to this charming country with wonderful birds and great birding.