Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 28—Mar 08, 2009

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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This trip will long be remembered as "the wettest dry-season tour ever"! Clouds hung over the Caribbean slope and lowlands for our entire time there, misting and raining frequently, but it did not dampen our spirits, and in fact made for a very successful visit to this region. Temperatures remained pleasantly cool, the birds responded by maintaining high levels of activity all day long, and in the end we saw a fantastic cross section of the species of this rich area. It was only when we traveled across the high mountains to the beautiful Savegre Valley that the clouds dissipated. Here we experienced sunny days and cool nights, and a wonderful parade of the mountain specialties. Tops among them had to be the fabulous Resplendent Quetzals, but there were many others, and by the end of the week we certainly understood why tiny Costa Rica is one of the world's premier birding destinations.

Our first day out we traveled down through beautiful Braulio Carillo National Park under sunny skies, arriving at the Aerial Tram to find a soaring Barred Hawk there to greet us and a very cooperative White Hawk not long thereafter. By lunchtime the clouds had moved in and soon the restless mixed-flocks of tanagers became active between the intermittent drizzle. A flock of Collared Aracaris feeding at a fruiting liana captivated our group, but the undisputed highlight of the day—and perhaps the trip—was a young male Bare-necked Umbrellabird that appeared at the same fruit. It remained there at remarkably close range for 30 minutes, and in the end we walked away from it! This large cotinga has a very restricted range and is always a rare find.

In spite of the rainy days, our visits to the world-famous La Selva Field Station were simply amazing, with a seemingly endless feast of birds appearing along the entry road, including colorful parrots, toucans, and trogons. A fruiting guava tree right at the cafeteria provided close looks at a great number of species, including incredibly tame Crested Guans. Even more amazing were the six Great Curassows seen the first day here. This spectacular game bird is highly threatened in most of its range and it has taken decades for them to re-colonize this part of the La Selva property. And if that weren't enough, that day we also observed a Great Tinamou boldly "frozen" in position, almost too close to focus binoculars upon. A wonderful surprise this year was the presence of Great Green Macaws in the region. This spectacular bird is highly endangered, and the small number remaining in Costa Rica wander widely, so to see 14 flying by in one procession was truly remarkable.

There is always much to see in a tropical forest as rich as this one, and other highlights here included spectacular looks at Pale-billed and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers; a calm Broad-billed Motmot at close range; a Semiplumbeous Hawk perched in the open; male and female Snowy Cotingas at a fruiting tree;  sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamars; a stunning Black-striped Woodcreeper at the forest edge; Gray-necked Wood-Rails sneaking out to puddles in the road; a Vermiculated Screech-Owl at its day roost; a long study of a female Great Antshrike; a tiny male White-collared Manakin feeding actively in a fruiting bush; a colorful Yellow-tailed Oriole at close range; and much more. A stop at an open marsh produced seven rarely-seen Green Ibis strolling around, plus males of the very localized Nicaraguan Seed-Finch teed-up and singing. Each day when we arrived back at the lodge we relaxed by watching the parade of birds coming to the feeders, including tanagers (a brilliant Crimson-collared was the best), honeycreepers, and 3 species of saltators.

From the foothills we moved to the delightful mountains, descending through the oak forests of 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 with a totally new set of birds, including beauties like the Ruddy Treerunner, Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher (so sleek and elegant), Flame-throated Warbler, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager. The charming Collared Redstarts ("amigos de hombre") seemed to like us, landing right at our feet as they searched the leaf litter for insects, while the Buffy Tuftedcheek rummaging through the bromeliads high overhead challenged our necks to see it. Our rarest sighting here was an Ochraceous Pewee that gave us multiple views as it foraged in the last afternoon sunlight.

At the highest elevations we tracked down several endemics of very restricted range, including a bold Timberline Wren; odd-looking Large-footed Finches lurking in the stunted vegetation; and stunning Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, with their full rainbow of colors. Best of all were the fabulous Resplendent Quetzals, considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world. It took a while to find them, but an afternoon hike up a gorgeous valley produced a pair quietly sitting in the midstory, occasionally fluttering down to a fruiting tree to grab a bite. We had 30 wonderful minutes with them before they slipped away into the forest to digest their meal. This is perhaps the ultimate Costa Rican bird experience!

All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our week in Costa Rica over but certainly not forgotten.