Best of Costa Rica Mar 20—Apr 01, 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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Costa Rica is simply amazing! There are few other places in the world where such a wide diversity of wildlife can be seen so readily and in such a small area, and our 2010 "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 more friendly place for wildlife. Where else do curassows parade around with dozens of people nearby, or herds of javelina practically stroll along with the observers, or flocks of toucans pour into the trees right by a lodge entrance? Where else does one see a Great Tinamou casually strolling a few feet off a major trail, or stunning male quetzals calmly perched near their nest sites? 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. Such is birding in Costa Rica!

This tour covered four very different regions of the country, each producing its own specialties and surprises. We began with an impromptu scenic stop overlooking the Meseta Central, where a pair of  Prong-billed Barbets perched not 20 feet away and brilliant Golden-browed Chlorophonias fed almost within touching distance, while an Emerald Toucanet called from a nearby tree. Shortly thereafter, a mixed-flock crossing the road was highlighted by a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks that paused to preen each other, the birds puffing out their bizarre cheek feathers to be stroked. The lush garden and forests of Bosque de Paz provided a nice selection of subtropical birds, highlighted by the Black Guans scrambling over the feeders, a ridiculous sight, while at night those same feeders attracted a family of pacas, a rarely seen large rodent that has been widely extirpated by hunting. Unfortunately, the next day a late cold front brought rain to this region, but while sheltering from it we watched a fiesta of hummingbirds, including little-known specialties like the Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem.

From the wet subtropics we moved to the dry Pacific lowlands. The Scarlet Macaw is the signature species of this region, and here we thrilled to their sheer brilliance and general rowdiness as we watched pairs exploring nest sites, feeding overhead in the canopy, and flying against brilliant skies. As always, the partially deciduous forests of Carara National Park were incredibly birdy. Here we found five species of gorgeous trogons, including the endemic Baird's, and other colorful gems like Fiery-billed Aracari and Rufous-tailed Jacamar. 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. Surprises here included a pair of Little Tinamous stealthily sneaking through the open woodland, a young King Vulture perched low inside the heavy forest, a serendipitous Spectacled Owl by day, and scope views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta. Perhaps best of all were the manakins, as we observed Orange-collareds snapping and buzzing at the lek, Long-taileds doing their magical syncopated dance, and stunning Red-capped and Blue-crowned males slipping down to splash in a clear forest stream in the quiet of the late afternoon. A delightful afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River was a nice break from the intensity of the forest birding and produced closeups of Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, and small specialties like the Mangrove Hummingbird and Mangrove Vireo.

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 and a female Great Curassow calmly paraded around under the guava trees; both Semiplumbeous Hawk and Laughing Falcon were seen perched in bare trees at close range (great photo ops!); a pair of rarely seen Pied Puffbirds came out into the open; and a Rufous Piha was seen sitting on its tiny and well-camouflaged nest. The afternoon brought long looks at a male curassow feeding in a fruiting laurel tree and Great Tinamous casually standing just off to the side of the trail, while we ended the day with a pair of rare Great Green Macaws flying past in beautiful light. This highly-threatened species seems to be exploring nest sites in the region, where it has not bred for 50 or more years. Not all of the birds seen here were large, and while in this region we also 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; Fasciated Antshrikes incubating on two different nests; a tiny Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant in the scopes; 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 the tour in the delightful Savegre Valley, along a rushing mountain stream amidst the magnificent temperate 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 extremely successful with the highland birds on this trip and had great looks at such special ones as Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Timberline Wren, Flame-throated Warbler, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed Finch, Volcano Junco, and Black-thighed Grosbeak, to mention a few, while the endearing Collared Redstarts that landed all around us were clearly a group favorite. Especially noteworthy were the responsive Wrenthrush that was seen well (yes Mimi, they really do exist!), and the Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher, a great last-minute find on our way back to San Jose.

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 full-plumaged males at close range, repeatedly, we certainly wouldn't disagree! All too soon it was time to leave "the valley of the quetzals" and return to San Jose, our grand tour of the highlights of Costa Rica complete.