Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 25—Mar 04, 2012

Posted by David Wolf


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 us. There is such an astounding wealth of things for the naturalist to see and do in this one small, efficient, bird-friendly country! We took full advantage of this abundance for an action-packed week of birding from the Caribbean lowlands to the high mountains, enjoying the spectacular scenery and fabulous tropical vegetation almost as much as the birds themselves. Every day brought highlights, and by the end of the week we had seen some of the most special birds of Central America, plus members of most of the Neotropical families. And, importantly, we had seen them well!

Great Curassow

Great Curassow— Photo: Jon Britell


An exhilarating first day working en route to the lowlands took us to the lovely La Paz Waterfall Garden, where half-a-dozen species of tanagers greeted us before we even left the entry building, and ten species of hummingbirds swarmed the feeders, including such goodies as Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and Magenta-throated Woodstar (all of limited range). A silent Prong-billed Barbet posed motionless for minutes, and then just around the corner we found an incredibly bold Black Guan just inside the forest. Later, a stop at a grove of brilliant Erythrina trees in bloom produced our first parrots and oropendolas feeding on the flowers. By the end of the day we had seen nearly 100 species, and this was just the beginning.

The next day clouds hung over the Caribbean lowlands, after light showers overnight, but the weather did not dampen our spirits, and in fact made for an incredibly active first day here. Beginning at the start of the entry road to the world-famous La Selva Field Station, we found ourselves surrounded by a confusing—and wonderful—array of sounds and new birds. Welcome to the Neotropics! It took us several hours to cover the first 200 yards of the road, as a seemingly endless parade of birds appeared, including parrots and parakeets, trogons, woodcreepers, becards, flycatchers, and more. A rare Rufous-winged Woodpecker kept popping up for even better views than the last, and when we finally reached the station we found a very bold Semiplumbeous Hawk sitting in full view just behind the cafeteria. Before we knew it the morning was over and we hadn’t even made it across the footbridge to the heavier forest. We set that as our goal for the afternoon, but just as the activity at the base of the bridge slowed, and we thought that we might get to the other side, an incredibly tame male Great Curassow flew across the river, deliberately strolled out of the forest right in front of us, and walked across the lawn to reach a fruiting guava tree right by the cafeteria. Mouths agape, we watched him from just a few feet away! It took a rousing chorus of toucans sitting up in the bare trees to finally distract us, and then, just as we thought a most-satisfying day had truly ended, our first huge Crested Guan was spotted in a nearby tree. This just doesn't happen elsewhere!

The following day we did make it across the footbridge, finding a fruiting fig tree near the labs attracting a horde of birds, from dozens of toucans and more Crested Guans down the list through trogons, woodpeckers, euphonias, and many others. All the while we sporadically watched a male Snowy Cotinga high up in a bare emergent tree as he jumped between favored perches in some kind of display. Eventually he too worked up enough of an appetite to come down into the fig tree right in front of us! In the afternoon we went for quality, not quantity, and entered the shady forest. We were barely down the trail before we located a pair of Broad-billed Motmots side by side in the understory, posing for scope views and photos, but we had to tear ourselves away from them when a Great Tinamou was located a few feet further down the trail, "frozen" in position on the dark forest floor only a few feet away from us—big, bold, and ever so close! There were so many other great sightings during our time in the lowlands that it was hard to pick favorites. Was it the Spectacled Owl in broad daylight, or the endangered Great Green Macaw sticking its head out of a nest hole? The Bat Falcon by the roadside, or the White-necked Puffbird that kept popping up in the canopy? The Brown-hooded Parrot feeding silently inside the heavy forest understory just a few feet away from us? The tiny red and blue "poison-dart" frogs and the dinosaur-like green basilisks? Or perhaps the amazing sloths, or the coati asleep in the crotch of a tree?

From the Caribbean lowlands 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, Yellow-thighed Finch, 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 skulking nightingale-thrushes and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens snuck out into the gardens in full view. At the higher elevations we tracked down several endemics of very restricted range, including the fierce-eyed Volcano Juncos that insisted on being looked at again and again; a bold Timberline Wren that climbed out of the bamboo thickets into view; odd-looking Large-footed Finches scratching the leaf litter of the stunted vegetation; and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds, the males "erupting" high into the sky in nuptial display. A hike in the magnificent old-growth oak forest on our final morning produced a fabulous Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and in the mixed-flocks nearby we watched the strange Buffy Tuftedcheek forage in and out of the dense bromeliads.

The best of all had to be the fabulous Resplendent Quetzal, considered by many the most beautiful bird in the world. This year they started their breeding season early, so we headed to a nest hole known to be active, only to find the male inside incubating, with only the long streamers sticking out. It was exciting to know that he was there, but this was definitely not an acceptable view, so we began a long vigil, hoping that at any moment the mate would appear and change places with him. Several hours went by, and Flame-throated Warblers and a Black-thighed Grosbeak passed by the nest tree, but we began to get a bit restless and discouraged, when suddenly and without fanfare the streamers disappeared, the head poked out of the hole, and before we could blink he was sitting next to the nest tree in full breathtaking glory. After his long stint of incubation duty he stretched, preened, and then just posed, while we breathlessly watched and the cameras snapped away like mad. This bird is perhaps the ultimate Costa Rican natural history experience, and it was well worth the wait! All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our week in Costa Rica over but certainly not forgotten.