Best of Costa Rica Mar 16—28, 2013

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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Small in size, but huge in possibilities, 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 and in such a small area, and our 2013 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 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 ranges. 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!

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; at our first stop, sleek Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers appeared in the treetops and a responsive trio of unique Prong-billed Barbets landed right in front of us. Nearby, the lush gardens and forests of Bosque de Paz provided a nice selection of subtropical birds, including a ridiculous number of very bold Black Guans coming to the feeders and sparkling Golden-browed Chlorophonias and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers in the fruiting shrubs. After dark a family of Pacas, a large and rarely seen nocturnal rodent, interrupted our dinner when they appeared at the feeders. Walks inside the forest produced little birds like Slaty Antwren and Spotted Barbtail, and scope views of a very cooperative Lineated Foliage-gleaner, while along the road we enjoyed fledgling American Dippers just out of the nest, and puzzled over hybrid trogons. Hummingbird feeders here and at the nearby Catarata de Toro were swarming with birds, and we found multiples of such little-known gems as Black-bellied Hummingbird, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem amidst the commoner species.

From the wet subtropics we moved across the highlands and down to the dry Pacific lowlands. As always, the partially deciduous forests of Carara National Park were incredibly birdy, with a seemingly endless array of forest birds revealing themselves. Scarlet Macaws, the signature species of this region, thrilled us every time we saw them, while colorful Fiery-billed Aracaris in the canopy paused to give us scope views, a Black-faced Antthrush paraded around on the open forest floor, a pair of stunning Baird’s Trogons sat motionless in the midstory right above us, and colorful little Orange-collared Manakins snapped and buzzed at a lek right beside the path. A very successful afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River gave us a break from the forest birding and yielded 10 species of the heron family, including a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that forced down a large dead catbird, plus all five kingfishers possible (among them a very close and bold Pygmy), a cooperative Panama Flycatcher, and a lovely pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots, among many other birds.

We then went back across the highlands to the wet Caribbean lowlands, with impromptu stops en route producing a Plain-capped Starthroat feeding a large chick in a nest on a utility pole and an amazing Great Potoo perched atop an open dead snag by the roadside. A spectacular morning greeted us the next day at the world-renowned La Selva Research Station, as birds popped out everywhere our first few hours afield, along what we deemed “the best hundred yards of birding anywhere.” They included parrots; toucans; trogons; a Pied Puffbird; a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars; motmots; woodpeckers including Rufous-winged, Cinnamon, and Chestnut-colored; woodcreepers; tanagers; and many others. Later we would have repeated close-up looks at remarkably bold Great Curassows and Crested Guans, both of which have been extirpated in many areas by hunting and clearing of the forest, but here have become a frequent sight. Our final afternoon at La Selva was very humid and still, initially with little bird activity, but we soon located a much-prized Great Tinamou and spent 15 minutes watching it at close range. Then, as we crossed the footbridge to return to the bus, a Sungrebe was spotted in the river below us, calmly foraging in the tree roots overhanging the water. As if that weren’t reward enough, a raucous commotion sounded off just ahead, right behind the main station buildings—and proved to be a spectacular pair of endangered Great Green Macaws perched in full view in gorgeous late afternoon light!

A travel day to our final destination gave us a chance to bird the rugged Caribbean foothills a little, picking up birds like a Fasciated Tiger-Heron fishing in a clear rocky stream, a trio of King Vultures up and soaring overhead, tiny male Black-crested Coquette and Snowcap hummingbirds dancing around the verbena flowers, and a Dull-mantled Antbird literally at our feet. Then it was on to the cool highlands and the delightful Savegre Valley, where we found our first, never to be forgotten, Resplendent Quetzals before even reaching our lodge. 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. Later we would return to watch these birds again—with a bird like this one can never get enough!

Birds are not as abundant in the Costa Rica highlands as in the lowlands, but a high percentage of those present are endemic to this small region, which barely extends into western Panama, and many are unique. At first we birded the spectacular lodge gardens and nearby woodlots and rushing stream, getting acquainted with soon-to-be favorites like the Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked warblers, Collared Redstart, and Yellow-thighed Finch. Later we drove up to the high country on Cerro de la Muerte to search for the specialties of the highest elevations. Here the very range-restricted Volcano Junco hopped up to us within minutes of our arrival and proved itself to be a very entertaining little bird, while it took some effort to coax the Timberline Wren and strange Large-footed Finches out of the bamboo. Our final morning here was highlighted by a singing Ochraceous Pewee, one of the rarest of the endemics. 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.