Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 28—Mar 08, 2015

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 2015 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 where we stayed were comfortable and homey, open to the birds and flowers; the people were friendly, and yes, the coffee was great too.

Crimson-collared Tanager

Crimson-collared Tanager— Photo: David Wolf


The birds came fast and furious, beginning our first day out at the La Paz Waterfall Garden. Here we had the only rain of the trip, the tail-end of a major winter storm in North America, but there were plenty of places to shelter, and it didn’t stop us from spotting birds right and left. In fact, it took almost an hour just to get past the colorful birds at the entry station feeders, as Silver-throated, Passerini’s, and Blue-gray tanagers and more 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. Almost ridiculous were the normally shy Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and pair of Sooty-faced Finches that emerged from the dense understory to forage for scraps in the open-air restaurant. Finally, just as we were leaving, a stunning Crimson-collared Tanager popped up, putting even the brilliant Passerini’s to shame.

Our first day in the lowlands had us up early and 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. We started along the entry road, with birds popping out everywhere, causing great excitement and some confusion. Large flycatchers were prominent, and we began with lessons on how to tell these “look-alikes” apart, only to be distracted by the raucous calls of a trio of Great Green Macaws that came sailing past in beautiful light. Minutes later a single macaw flew low overhead, and then a flock of 9 appeared, landing in a distant tree for scope views. To see 13 of these spectacular endangered birds in our first hour afield was certainly an auspicious beginning, but there was much more to come. Before long we had spotted toucans and trogons of several species, had a Broad-billed Motmot perch right above us, and watched ridiculously-tame Crested Guans parading around the busy public area of the station.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar— Photo: David Wolf


Two sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamars repeatedly sallying out for insects and returning to perches just a few feet away from us were a special treat. That afternoon brought our first sighting of an ethereal male Snowy Cotinga that proved to be very reliable, displaying in the same bare tree every afternoon, while we ended this day with a great find right in the parking lot—a Tiny Hawk perched in the open for a long scope study.

The next two days here continued to produce highlights. Among them were a surprise Great Tinamou that slowly walked right in front of the group as we peered into the understory trying to spot a tiny wood-wren; multiple looks at Great Curassows, a spectacular gamebird that is gone from many parts of its range; a big mixed-flock of small birds that included a scarce Rufous-winged Woodpecker amidst the commoner species; and a secretive Stripe-breasted Wren finally lured into view and showing off its beautiful pattern. Many of the birds lingered long enough for us to study their behavior, but sometimes it was puzzling. For instance, just what was that pair of Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers doing? Perched one above the other, they repeatedly pecked the tree trunk and then preened their bills through the feathers. Were they somehow using the tree sap in their feather care? A most amusing experience came as we left La Quinta on an afternoon excursion and immediately spotted a three-toed sloth dangling precariously just a few feet over the river on a very thin liana. Whether it had fallen or purposely descended that liana we will never know, but the animal recognized that it had made a serious mistake and slowly—very slowly—climbed back up into the trees as we watched. All too soon it was time for us to leave the Sarapiqui, but the experience of feeling deep in the rainforest, with all of our senses alert to the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells, will long be remembered.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker— Photo: David Wolf


Then it was off to the cool higher mountains at Savegre, a welcome contrast to the steamy lowlands. The next morning a wonderful assortment of new birds greeted us, from brilliant Flame-colored Tanagers at the feeders to an elegant Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher nearby. Especially friendly birds like the Collared Redstart and Tufted and Yellowish flycatchers perched and fluttered only a few feet away, while beautiful Spangle-cheeked Tanagers and very un-finch-like Yellow-thighed Finches popped up nearby. These birds were not our main quest, however, for we were waiting for that largest and finest of all the trogons to appear, the Resplendent Quetzal. It took some patience, but we were not to be disappointed, and soon enough a pair of these fabulous birds appeared like magic to investigate a potential nest hole in a dead snag. Considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world, they remained in the vicinity for over an hour while cameras fired away and a crowd gathered, the male in full view most of this time.

Black Guan

Black Guan— Photo: David Wolf


Quetzals may be at the top of the list of the montane specialties, but there were others to look for too. A lethargic pair of Black Guans close at hand in a fruiting shrub was especially satisfying. 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, and tried to see all of the iridescent colors of the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. A pre-breakfast walk on our final morning produced a pair of chorusing Spotted Wood-Quail, remarkably camouflaged in the dark understory, yet in full view as they puffed out their breasts, raised crests, and uttered their loud rollicking song. Members of this elusive genus just don’t normally yield looks like this. For our final walk we split into two groups, one group birding the garden and a lovely forested valley, adding Ruddy Treerunner and Black-cheeked Warbler to their list, while the hiking group visited the old-growth oak forest high above the lodge. After succeeding in getting great looks at a secretive Streak-breasted Treehunter, the hikers with Mimi turned their attention to a singing Wren-thrush, the most elusive skulker of them all. Suddenly two male quetzals began calling overhead, squabbling and displaying for several coy females, and the shadowy Wren-thrush was forgotten as the group enjoyed a spectacular final show.