Best of Costa Rica Mar 20—Apr 01, 2012

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 great diversity of birds and other wildlife can be seen so readily, in such a small area, and our 2012 "Best of Costa Rica" tour took full advantage of this wealth as we roamed from one side of the country to the other. Costa Rica has done much to promote conservation and be more "eco-friendly," and this really paid off for us with an astounding number of birds seen on the trip. More important, most of them were seen well, including many large and spectacular species that have declined over much of their range. Song and nesting activity were high, yielding many photo opportunities. We visited a wide variety of habitats and all the while we learned more about these wonderful tropical birds and their environments. Such is the joy of birding in Costa Rica.

Orange-collared Manakin

Orange-collared Manakin— Photo: David Wolf

This tour covered four very different regions, each producing its own specialties and surprises. After spotting our first birds in the hotel garden in San Jose, we traveled to the wet subtropical zone on the flanks of Volcan Poas, where at our first stop an Emerald Toucanet quietly climbed into view, and a responsive pair of Prong-billed Barbets appeared right in front of us for close studies. The lush gardens and forests of Bosque de Paz provided a nice selection of subtropical birds. We ended the day with a Black Guan displaying from tree to tree right above our rooms, while after dark a family of pacas, a large and rarely seen nocturnal rodent, came to the lodge feeders. The following day we visited the nearby Catarata de Toro and found the hummingbird feeders swarming with an incredible number of birds. There were so many individuals present it was hard to know where to look, but we soon found multiples of such little-known gems as Black-bellied Hummingbird, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem amidst the more common species.

From the wet subtropics we moved to the drier Pacific lowlands. Our first day here began with a pair of Spectacled Owls as we walked to breakfast, a nice surprise to start the day. Then, shortly after leaving the hotel, we found our first Scarlet Macaws, teed-up on an exposed snag right by the highway. This is the signature species of the region and we thrilled to their sheer brilliance and general rowdiness this and every other time that we saw them. We soon reached our birding trail for the morning, but had walked barely 50 yards before we discovered army ants leaving their bivouac—and attendant Bicolored Antbirds and Gray-headed Tanagers waiting to follow them. It was a rare opportunity to study one of the most fascinating sights of the Neotropics close at hand. As always, the partially-deciduous forests of Carara National Park were incredibly birdy. Here we found gems like the stunning male Orange-collared Manakins snapping and buzzing at a lek beside the trail, and a sparkling pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars. An afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River gave us a break from the forest birding, and great looks at Boat-billed Herons and Double-striped Thick-knees, among many other birds.

Our second day at Carara began with Turquoise-browed and Blue-crowned motmots at the edge, but then we entered the heavier forest, going for quality rather than quantity. We waited silently as we called-in a Black-faced Antthrush that eventually paraded right past us, and then soon thereafter lured a Streak-chested Antpitta into full view for all. A pair of Baird's Trogons in the midstory gave us long looks, as did a very inconspicuous White-whiskered Puffbird sitting amidst a gang of actively foraging Riverside Wrens. A final late afternoon walk inside the quiet forest produced stunning male Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins splashing in a "secret" bathing pool in a clear stream.

From here we traveled to the wet Caribbean lowlands, where both a Fasciated Tiger-Heron and a Sunbittern greeted us just as we arrived at our lodge. Our first day at the world-renowned La Selva Research Station produced its usual feast of birds along the entry road, including a memorable Chestnut-colored Woodpecker feeding on a Heliconia flower just a few feet from the group. That afternoon, as we watched a fruiting tree loaded with six Crested Guans, a male Great Curassow, and several toucans feeding in it, a small raptor came blasting into the tree, wreaking havoc with the birds as they noisily dove for the understory. The hawk proved to be an immature Bicolored, a species rarely seen well, and we were quite amused that it could cause such panic in the much larger birds. Our second morning at La Selva was drizzly, but we persisted and were rewarded with a beautiful Sungrebe as we crossed the footbridge, and then an immaculate male Snowy Cotinga displaying high up in a bare tree. That afternoon, after much searching, we finally connected with a Great Tinamou slowly and silently moving through the forest. This is one of the great birds of La Selva and I know of no other place where they are so tame and observable.

A travel day to our final destination gave us a chance to bird the rugged Caribbean foothills a little, where we had point-blank views of Black-crested Coquettes and a male Snowcap dancing around the verbena flowers, a pair of Dull-mantled Antbirds literally at our feet, and, best of all, a magnificent adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched above us in a huge emergent tree. 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 highland forest. Birds are not as abundant here as in the lowlands, but a high percentage of those seen are endemic to these highlands. A stroll through the lodge gardens and nearby woodlots introduced us to this avifauna—favorites were the Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-throated Warbler, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager—until we reached our goal, a Resplendent Quetzal nest known to be active. Indeed it was active, and for the next two hours we watched enthralled as both male and female quetzals repeatedly delivered food to the nest and then rested nearby. Some would argue that this is the most beautiful bird in the world, and after watching them at close range we certainly wouldn't disagree! Even a flock of the scarce Sulphur-winged Parakeets foraging nearby distracted us only momentarily.

That afternoon found us searching for the high-elevation specialties in the thickets near tree line, discovering that the range-restricted Volcano Junco is a cheeky and entertaining little bird when foraging for crumbs at our feet! Our final excursion took us on a hike through the spectacular old-growth oak forest on the slopes high above the lodge. Just being amidst such a beautiful and peaceful setting was reward enough, but the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl at the nest hole and Buffy Tuftedcheek rummaging through the epiphytes were added bonuses. All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our grand tour of some of the best birding areas in Costa Rica complete.