Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 26—Mar 06, 2011

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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Even after many trips over many years, Costa Rica continues to amaze me. There is such a wealth of things for the naturalist to see and do in this one small, friendly, efficient country! We took full advantage of this abundance for an action-packed week of birding from the foothills to the Caribbean lowlands to the high mountains. Every day brought highlights, and by the end of the week we had seen some of the most special and rare birds of Central America, plus representatives of most of the Neotropical families. And, we had seen them well.

An exhilarating first day gave us a great introduction, with good finds at every stop and nearly 100 species for the day. Perhaps the best were the Prong-billed Barbets eyeing us at close range and the Black Guan feeding in a fruiting fig, but we certainly enjoyed all of the hummingbirds, tanagers, and wintering warblers too.

During the next two days clouds hung low over the Caribbean lowlands and we dodged rain showers, but the wet weather did not dampen our spirits, and in fact made for a very successful visit to the Sarapiqui lowlands. Temperatures remained pleasantly cool, the birds responded by maintaining high levels of activity all day long, and in the end we saw a fantastic selection of the birds of this rich area. Our visits to the world-famous La Selva Field Station were amazing, with a seemingly endless feast of birds like colorful parrots, toucans, trogons, and tanagers. Between studies of the commoner species we had highlights like a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails sneaking out to puddles in the road; a male Snowy Cotinga teed-up in a bare tree; Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers sitting motionless for long scope studies; sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamars hawking insects when the sun came out; a Vermiculated Screech-Owl at its well-hidden day roost; nest-building Bronzy Hermits; a calm Rufous Motmot at close range; a Semiplumbeous Hawk perched quietly in the midstory; a stunning Black-striped Woodcreeper foraging at the forest edge; a tiny male White-collared Manakin in a fruiting bush; and a brilliant Yellow-tailed Oriole rummaging around in a Heliconia. Who would have guessed that Turkey Vultures would provide a trip highlight, but as the heavy clouds broke up and the thermals rose, so did the vultures. Apparently a huge migration of them had been grounded by the rains, but once they got going we estimated that at least 15,000 passed by us in under two hours!

Even more amazing were the more endangered birds of the region. Crested Guans were seen so often they became almost ho-hum, while on our first morning here we thrilled to a courting pair of Great Curassows that seemed oblivious to the human foot traffic around the footbridge. Later we watched two females in a serious scuffle over a male calmly watching nearby. This spectacular game bird is highly threatened in most of its fragmented range, and it has taken decades for it to re-colonize the La Selva property. On a walk into the primary forest we found a Great Tinamou boldly foraging at a small army ant swarm, almost too close to focus binoculars upon. Tinamous are notoriously difficult to see, and have been over-hunted in many areas, but this one seemed oblivious to us. As if that weren't enough, while we watched the tinamou, a pair of secretive Olive-backed Quail-Doves walked out onto the path next to it! A wonderful surprise again 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 over a large area, so we were indeed very lucky to have a close pair perched in a bare tree for scope studies. Pure luck played a role in our success too. After checking the bridge near our lodge daily and finding nothing of note along the stream, on our third day a beautiful adult Fasciated Tiger-Heron was there, calmly standing on a log on the banks. It was only after we had gotten out of the bus to scope the heron that we discovered a stunning Sunbittern right below us. Such serendipity!

It was hard to leave the lowlands, but when we did our morning began with a flock of 7 Green Ibis strolling around a small pasture, their iridescent colors gleaming in the sunlight. Then, in the extravagantly lush foothill forests, we had sightings of almost all of the specialty tanagers of the region, including a male White-throated Shrike-Tanager perched right in front of us, a Blue-and-gold Tanager high in the forest canopy, and Emerald, Speckled, and Black-and-Yellow tanagers in the mixed-flocks that foraged low at the roadside edge.

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, 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.

At the highest elevations we tracked down endemics of very restricted range, including a bold Timberline Wren; odd-looking Large-footed Finches lurking in the stunted vegetation; stunning Fiery-throated Hummingbirds with their full rainbow of colors; and a pair of fierce-eyed Volcano Juncos. 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 our first morning, but then we enjoyed long scope looks at a male quietly perched in the understory. That afternoon we stumbled onto another pair and watched them taking turns digging a nest hole, the female doing more of the work while the truly resplendent male guarded her. 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.