Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 27—Mar 07, 2010

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 most of our time there, misting and raining frequently, but it did not dampen our spirits, and in fact helped make 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.

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, trogons, and many flycatchers. Incredibly tame Crested Guans were walking around under a fruiting guava tree right at the cafeteria, and we observed a Great Tinamou boldly "frozen" in position on the dark forest floor, almost too close to focus on. A wonderful surprise 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 seven flying by in one procession in gorgeous morning light was wonderful. That same morning produced a serendipitous male Snowy Cotinga that teed-up briefly while we were watching the rare Nicaraguan Seed-Finch in the scopes! There is always much to see in a tropical region as rich as this one, and other highlights here included spectacular looks at a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker foraging for ants on a dead bush; calm Broad-billed Motmots sitting close to the foot-bridge every time that we crossed it; a Semiplumbeous Hawk perched by the roadside; a sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar hawking insects; Gray-necked Wood-Rails sneaking around in a wooded swamp at the lodge; good looks at the clown-like Barred Antshrike while a more secretive pair of Great Antshrikes skulked nearby; a colorful Yellow-tailed Oriole at close range; and the parade of tanagers, saltators, and honeycreepers at the lodge feeders. Our time here ended with two spectacular Great Curassows strolling around in the open in the late afternoon. 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.

From the Caribbean lowlands we moved to the delightful—and drier—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), and Flame-throated Warbler. 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 a scolding Streak-breasted Treehunter well-hidden in a vine tangle challenged us to see it. A tiny fledgling Torrent Tyrannulet repeatedly being fed by the adults was especially fun to watch. At the higher elevations we tracked down several endemics of very restricted range, including the fierce-eyed Volcano Junco that insisted on being looked at again and again; Silvery-throated Jays slipping through the canopy of the old-growth oak forest; a bold Timberline Wren that climbed out of the thickets into the open; 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. This year they started their nesting season early, and we had repeated wonderful looks at males at or near four different nest-holes, while other males and females were seen silently biding their time in the forest or fluttering down to fruiting trees to grab a bite. This bird is perhaps the ultimate Costa Rican natural history experience!

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