Best of Costa Rica Mar 21—Apr 02, 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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Costa Rica is simply amazing! There are few other places in the world where such an amazing diversity of wildlife can be seen so readily and in such a small area. Our 2009 "Best of Costa Rica Tour" took full advantage of this wealth as we roamed from one side of the country to the other. Ecotourism has become one of Costa Rica's biggest businesses, and throughout the country people have made it a friendlier place for wildlife. Where else do curassows parade through a parking area, or troops of coatis practically stroll along with the observers, or flocks of toucans pour into the trees right behind the lodge cabins? Where else does one see a Great Tinamou casually strolling a few feet from the group, or a stunning male quetzal feeding within sight of 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 right over a busy road. Such is birding in Costa Rica!

We began in the lush subtropical forests of the Bosque de Paz Reserve with a bonanza of hummingbirds, and tanagers and gorgeous Golden-browed Chlorophonias in the fruiting trees. Black Guans scrambling over the feeders were a ridiculous sight; at night those same feeders attracted a family of pacas, a rarely-seen large rodent that has been widely extirpated. A Black-banded Woodcreeper at a small swarm of army ants was a rare find, while shy forest-dwellers like the Streak-chested Treehunter and Spotted Barbtail eventually gave us great studies. A male Orange-bellied Trogon on our final morning here set us on track to see all of the trogons possible during the trip.

Moving to the dry Pacific lowlands, our first stop was for a concentration of Wood Storks and other waders feeding in a drying-up puddle, but it also yielded tantalizing looks at Scarlet Macaws, distant birds barely lit by the low afternoon sun. This is the signature species of this region, and the next morning we thrilled to their sheer brilliance and general rowdiness as we watched a pair exploring a nest site and others feeding overhead in the canopy. The partially-deciduous forests of Carara National Park are incredibly birdy, and here we found five species of gorgeous trogons, including the endemic Baird's. At times it was hard to tear our eyes away from them to watch the plethora of flycatchers, antbirds, and other forest insectivores foraging in the forest around them. Here too we found concealed White-whiskered Puffbirds sitting motionless in the dark understory, watched in silent wonder as shy Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins slipped down to bathe in a clear forest stream in the quiet of the late afternoon, and had never-to-be-forgotten scope views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta. Overhead, a male spider monkey gave us a spectacular branch-shaking threat display, while the rest of his troop snuck away through the canopy. A delightful afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River was a nice break from the intensity of the forest birding and produced close-ups of Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, Double-striped Thick-knees, Turquoise-browed Motmots, and more.

In the wet Caribbean lowlands, our first day at the world-famous La Selva Field Station was almost overwhelming, with birds popping out everywhere. Huge Crested Guans sat calmly in the trees in front of us, a pair of rare Great Green Macaws flew past in the morning mist, showy Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers landed low and close, and we watched a very stealthy Agami Heron slipping along a forest stream at close range. Perhaps the rarest sighting of the morning was the magnificent male Great Curassow in the path ahead of us—or so it seemed, until we returned in the afternoon and found a female and immature strolling around the parking area! We ended the day with long, close looks at a Great Tinamou casually feeding just off to the side of the trail. Not all of the birds seen here were large, and while in this area we also especially enjoyed the Rufous and Broad-billed motmots hooting and honking, the subtle beauty of forest-dwellers like the Rufous-winged Woodpecker and Black-striped Woodcreeper, an active lek of White-collared Manakins that allowed us to watch their antics at close range, and the spectacular songs of the elusive Stripe-breasted, Black-throated, and Bay wrens.

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 oak forest. Birds are not as abundant here as in the lowlands, but a very high percentage of them are endemic to these highlands and quite unique. We were lucky with most of the specialties—it took about 30 seconds to find the Volcano Junco—and had great looks at such scarce ones as Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl (with a large frog!), Silver-throated Jay, Timberline Wren, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed Finch, and Black-thighed Grosbeak, while the endearing Collared Redstarts that landed all around us, and even on us, were clearly favorites. The outstanding bird of the area, however, is the Resplendent Quetzal. Some would argue that this is the most beautiful bird in the world, and, after watching a full-plumaged male foraging in an open orchard at close range for 20 minutes, 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.