Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Mar 01—09, 2014

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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Costa Rica continues to amaze us, even after many trips over many years. There is such an astounding wealth of things for the naturalist to see and do in this small, efficient, bird-friendly country! Our 2014 “Short Costa Rica” tour took full advantage of this abundance for an action-packed week of birding, enjoying the spectacular scenery and fabulous vegetation almost as much as the birds themselves as we explored three very different environments, from the Caribbean lowlands to the high temperate mountains. Every day brought highlights, and by the end of the week we had seen some of the most special birds of Central America. Just as important, we saw them well and had fun while doing so. The lodges we stayed at were comfortable and homey, open to the birds and flowers; the people were friendly; and yes, the coffee was great too.

The birds came fast and furious, beginning our first day at the La Paz Waterfall Garden. Upon arrival here, it took us 30 minutes to get past the colorful tanagers at the entry station feeders, as Silver-throated, Crimson-collared, Passerini’s, Bay-headed, and Blue-gray all appeared in quick succession. Then we spent time studying our first hummingbirds, sorting out 9 species buzzing around the feeders, including foothill specialties like Black-bellied Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem. A pair of Prong-billed Barbets giving their whooping duet eventually cooperated for good views, and a normally-shy Sooty-faced Finch foraged practically at our feet. Here too we had the thrill of spotting the first trogon of the trip, a well-hidden male Collared, in the midstory of the lush forest. Later, in the lowlands, we would regularly see Slaty-tailed and Gartered trogons and even have a male Black-throated come out of the understory to sit on an open wire for us.

Our first day in the lowlands began with a wakeup call from the Mantled Howler Monkeys, and then it was off to the world-famous La Selva Field Station. This area would prove to be incredibly rich on this and the next two days, and at times we hardly knew what to look at first. Was it the parade of toucans and aracaris marching through the treetops?  Or the super-close honeycreepers and tanagers fussing at the small boa curled up in a Heliconia by the patio? The ethereal male Snowy Cotinga that popped up briefly in a fruiting tree, or the nearby trogons? Other great sightings here included two pairs of Great Green Macaws; a male Great Curassow high up in a rainforest tree giving its booming “song” (this species was seen all three days);  the pair of Crested Guans with a small chick less than a week out of the egg; a Green Ibis sharing the canopy of a tall riverine tree with several large iguanas; both Rufous and Broad-billed motmots posing for photos at close range; and a big mixed-flock that included a tiny Plain Xenops with a huge prey item and good looks at the Green Shrike-Vireo, a bird far more often heard than seen.  Also memorable was finding three Southern Lapwings in a field, as this rapidly-expanding South American species has only recently been found in the Sarapiqui lowlands. Our final jaunt in this region was to a modest private home with a hilltop view—and an incredible Great Potoo sitting totally in the open on a branch not far from us. Almost as much fun as studying the potoo was the pleasure of watching the young children of the household view the strange bird through Mimi’s scope (set low just for them), their excited voices twinkling with amazement.

A travel morning through the foothills produced a sneaky Fasciated Tiger-Heron along a clear stream, and then the best looks ever at male, female, and immature male Snowcaps. Then it was into the cool higher mountains, a welcome contrast to the steamy lowlands. Here a wonderful assortment of new birds greeted us, beginning with a cute Torrent Tyrannulet as we arrived at Savegre Lodge. The next day brought long looks at group favorites like the elegant Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers; friendly Collared Redstarts at our feet; beautiful Spangle-cheeked Tanagers feeding in a berry bush; and the goofy and very un-finch-like Yellow-thighed Finches. In the subalpine páramo of the high country, the endemic Volcano Juncos boldly came scrambling out of the thickets to glean crumbs from our granola bars, while nearby we watched strange Large-footed Finches rooting in a flower bed with their huge feet. Hummingbirds were all over the place at the many flowers in the beautiful gardens, including the tiny nest of a Volcano Hummingbird with two babies in it. Almost unbelievable was the ridiculously tame quartet of Spotted Wood-Quail! They seemed totally oblivious to observers just a few feet away as they scratched and kicked in the leaf litter with their powerful legs and feet, giving us looks that just don’t normally happen with members of this elusive genus.

Then, of course, there was that really big trogon, a.k.a. the Resplendent Quetzal. The Savegre Valley is well-known as a great place to see this gem, but on this trip they were anything but conspicuous. Our first looks came on an early pre-breakfast option, a female feeding in a fruiting tree in rather poor light and a well-hidden male that suddenly exited the tree right over our heads.  Then it took much of the rest of the morning before we connected with them again, this time at a potential nest hole a hundred yards from the lodge. Here we found the female boldly sitting out right in front of us, but could only see the streamers of the male as they stuck out of a hole. At least we knew he was there, and our patience was eventually rewarded when he emerged and perched nearby in full view. The next day, just as we finished lunch and prepared to leave for San Jose, word filtered into the dining room that the pair had returned to the nest site and we joined the mad rush for the exits. It was well worth it, and for the next hour we were enthralled with this most beautiful of birds, a fitting way to end a great tour.