Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 02—10, 2016

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 me, 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 2016 “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 importantly, we saw them well and learned a lot 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 good too.

Crimson-collared Tanager

Crimson-collared Tanager— Photo: David Wolf


The birds came fast and furious, beginning in the garden of our hotel in San Jose before we moved on to the La Paz Waterfall Garden in the subtropical zone on the flanks of Volcan Poas. Here it took us almost an hour just to get past the colorful birds at the entry station feeders, as Silver-throated, Passerini’s, and Blue-gray tanagers, Black-cowled Orioles, and more all appeared in quick succession. Best of all was the brilliant Crimson-collared Tanager sneaking around in the flowering bougainvillea; it would prove to be the only one seen on the trip. Then we spent time studying our first hummingbirds, sorting out 9 species buzzing around the feeders, including foothill specialties like Green Hermit, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem. Our first mixed-flock of forest birds proved very cooperative as they worked back and forth at the forest edge, yielding good views of Red-faced Spinetails, our first woodcreeper, a delightful pair of little Tufted Flycatchers hawking insects, and a variety of “our” wood warblers on their wintering grounds, including a brilliant male Golden-winged. By midafternoon it was time to move on to our lodging in the lowlands, but before arriving we had our first views of toucans, a veritable fiesta of both Keel-billed and Black-mandibled gathering in a bare roadside tree.

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 where to look 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, but the perched parrots and Collared Aracaris were perhaps appreciated more than the flycatchers. After reaching the station we made our first forest walk, in the young second-growth trees along the river. Here an amazingly bold Chestnut-colored Woodpecker foraged down low just a few feet away from us as a Black Hawk-Eagle circled overhead calling, while a sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar repeatedly sallying out for insects was a special treat. Best of all, however, was the surprise Slaty-breasted Tinamou that our guide, Lenin, spotted crouched right beside the trail. After some initial confusion over the identification, the bird stood up to reveal its red legs (and identity)—and it was only then that we realized that it had been covering two tiny chicks that followed the adult as it slowly snuck away. To even see a tinamou is amazing, as they are usually just disembodied voices, but the chicks made this an especially unusual sighting.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar— Photo: David Wolf


A return trip to the station that afternoon produced, in quick succession, a very exciting run of special sightings of some of the larger creatures well-protected here:  howler monkeys lounging in a huge tree overhanging the river; a Gartered Trogon perched on the suspension bridge; a big iguana sunning itself; our first Crested Guans; and finally, a pair of Great Curassows feeding in a fruiting tree. We then studied a challenging nightjar that had been found by the local guides at its daytime roost in an understory vine tangle inside the forest. Since these nocturnal birds depend upon voice rather than plumage for identifying each other, the bird presented a real field challenge, but after considerable study it proved to be a wintering Chuck-will’s-widow. And this was only the first day here! Our second day proved to be just as productive as we added to our growing list, both here and at the feeders at La Quinta, where the brilliant Red-legged Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers quickly became group favorites.

Our final day at La Selva started off cool and clear—and very slow for the birds compared to the previous two cloudy mornings. As it warmed up, we worked hard to dig out a few skulkers like Black-throated and Stripe-breasted wrens, and we strained our necks to identify some of the small birds moving through the canopy in a large mixed-flock, but it wasn’t until late morning that we hit a wonderful sequence of large birds sitting still:  Rufous Motmot, Slaty-tailed and Black-throated trogons, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar. After such great sightings we began the walk out to the bus, only to be distracted by a Great Tinamou parading around on the open forest floor not far off of the trail. Only at La Selva is this species so bold!

Great Green Macaw

Great Green Macaw— Photo: David Wolf


That afternoon we made a special trip for one of the most spectacular—and unpredictable—birds of the region, the endangered Great Green Macaw. These huge birds with incredibly strong beaks wander widely in search of their preferred hard-shelled fruits, plus they have been greatly reduced in number by forest clearance and the illegal pet trade. Slowly they seem to be returning to this region, but sightings of them are always special and never guaranteed. With high hopes we positioned ourselves on a low open hilltop with a view in all directions and a grove of huge remnant trees in front of us. As we waited, we spotted a Bat Falcon perched in a lone tree, listened to a rousing chorus from a pair of Laughing Falcons, and scoped several smaller psittacids like the Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted parakeets. Suddenly, loud macaw voices were heard, as first a single and then a pair appeared in flight, coming closer and closer, and then wheeling around in beautiful light to land in the trees nearby. Within minutes more birds appeared, until at least 11 were in the vicinity and then began a very raucous social gathering as they moved in and out of view in the trees as we watched, enthralled, for the next 30 minutes. As large, colorful, and noisy as they were, it was amazing that they could hide so effectively in the canopy!

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal— Photo: David Wolf






From the Caribbean lowlands we moved to the high mountains in the center of the country. Our first day here began with abnormally cold and windy temperatures, the result of a major blizzard sweeping the U.S., and the mountain birds were subdued. With effort we dug out many of the smaller specialties of the mountains, and a successful trip to the highest elevations in the afternoon brought the endemic Volcano Juncos to our feet and great looks at the special Fiery-throated Hummingbird, but the premier bird of the region, the Resplendent Quetzal, eluded us. There was only one thing we could do about this—and that was to get up early the next morning for a pre-breakfast excursion to search for it again. Not long after leaving the hotel in the half-light, we glimpsed a large shape, sneaking through the midstory of a woodlot, that proved to be a Black Guan, a great start to the day. Then we stationed ourselves amidst the small crowd gathered where the quetzal had been found the previous day. Patient waiting produced several songbirds we had not yet seen, but still the star of the show had not appeared. Alert to any movement, we suddenly glimpsed a plump chicken-like shape jump across the road into a nearby gully. Quickly moving to that site, we realized that we were looking at a pair of Spotted Wood-Quail just below us! To our amazement they did not scurry away, instead giving us great prolonged looks at these normally very elusive birds.

In the meantime, a male quetzal that had been calling from the slope well below our position suddenly got quiet—and like magic it soon appeared in full view in the trees just in front of us! Multiple scope views were had by all as it initially sat quietly, before fluttering to pluck a fruit and re-position itself. Eventually it flew across the road just in front of us, landed in view again, and then suddenly the female was there too. It couldn’t have been better, but as we started back to the bus with big smiles on our faces, a male Collared Trogon suddenly appeared in front of us and sat and sat for a wonderful end to the show. With memories of the fabulous quetzal, we returned for breakfast and then a stroll through the pleasant gardens, enjoying great looks at specialties like the Flame-throated Warbler and Yellow-thighed Finch among many other birds. All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our wonderful week in Costa Rica drawing to a close.