Best of Costa Rica Mar 12—24, 2016
Posted by David Wolf
Every trip is different, but little Costa Rica never fails to amaze. It is so small in size, but huge in possibilities! There are few other places in the world where such a diversity of birds and other wildlife can be seen so readily, in such a compact area, and our 2016 “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 a large number of birds seen on the trip, plus several mammals not often encountered. More important, most of them were seen well, including many large and spectacular species that have declined over much of their ranges. We visited a wide variety of habitats, all the while learning about these wonderful tropical birds and their environments. Nesting activity was high, and many birds were in full song, making them very observable. Such are the joys of birding in Costa Rica!
While this year’s tour had many highlights, one clearly stood out. It came on our second morning in the moist forest at Carara National Park, as we left the dry young woodland behind and entered the tall evergreen forest. Just around a bend in the trail, we spotted movement on the ground and found several Black-faced Anthrushes walking in circles and antbirds jumping down to the open leaf litter. To have these elusive birds out in the open, ignoring us, could only mean one thing—army ants were in the area! Within minutes we realized that the predatory ants were leaving their bivouac in a big tree trunk and spreading out on the ground to flush prey, and that there were already a lot of birds around them hoping to snatch up morsels disturbed by the ants. Fascinated, we quietly watched as the parade of ants and birds came ever closer to us on the trail, yielding unforgettable point-blank studies of such elusive forest dwellers as Bicolored, Chestnut-backed, and Dusky antbirds; Tawny-winged and Northern Barred woodcreepers; Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner; Riverside, Rufous-and-white, and Rufous-breasted wrens; and Gray-headed Tanagers. At times the birds were literally foraging right at our feet! Such a sight was impossible to leave, so for the next several hours we observed this awesome spectacle, even spotting White-whiskered Puffbirds and a Blue-crowned Motmot sitting quietly above the swarm, watching patiently for large prey items. Altogether, it was an unforgettable experience, “The Perfect Swarm.”
Of course, there were numerous other highlights on our tour. We covered four different eco-regions, and each was good to us, 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 very first stop, a quartet of odd Prong-billed Barbets came roaring up to us in response to playback, their throats swelling with every whoop of their raucous duet. This species is quite unique and confined to mid-elevations in these damp highlands. Upon arriving nearby at lovely Bosque de Paz, we found the hummingbird feeders swarming with half-a-dozen species of these vibrant creatures, a group that we would enjoy many times on this tour. An afternoon stroll introduced us to the smaller birds of the subtropical zone, and when we returned to the lodge we found the feeders crawling with big Black Guans, a ridiculous but fulfilling sight. The next morning here we followed a gorgeous pair of Collared Trogons down the trail at close range and watched a troop of lethargic howler monkeys high overhead in the canopy, while an afternoon visit to a nearby waterfall produced still more hummingbirds and a totally crazy Black-breasted Wood-Quail that was trapped between “a rock and a hard place”—or at least the wall of the restaurant and a very surprised group of birders. And for those that got up early on our final morning, a Scaled Antpitta at the edge of the wet thickets was a special treat to see.
From the wet subtropics we left the mountains for the dry Pacific lowlands. As always, the partially deciduous forests of Carara National Park were incredibly birdy. This was our first stop in the rich lowlands, and the new birds came fast and furious as the forest birds revealed themselves, from trogons and Turquoise-browed Motmots to a seemingly endless array of small and obscure flycatchers. Scarlet Macaws, the signature species of this region, were regularly heard and glimpsed passing over both near and far, thrilling us every time that we saw them, and eventually we had great looks at a pair perched and feeding in a grove of palms. Prowling the forest interior also produced gems like a displaying Band-tailed Barbthroat and colorful Orange-collared Manakins, while Fiery-billed Aracaris were a thrill to find on the lodge grounds. A very successful afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River gave us a break from the forest birding and yielded 11 species of the heron family, including spectacular looks at Bare-throated Tiger-Herons and roosting Boat-billed Herons almost close enough to touch, plus four species of kingfishers (including the hard-to-spot Pygmy and a Green repeatedly digging at its nesthole), raptors, and a brilliant male “Mangrove” Warbler shining in the late afternoon sun, among many other birds.
Then it was off to the cool highlands of Cerro de la Muerte. Birds are generally not as abundant in the 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 our first stops were in the high country to look for the specialties restricted to the highest zone of the mountains. Here, on the edge of the temperate oak forest, we found such unique forms as the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Timberline Wren, and Large-footed Finch. In the stunted páramo vegetation at over 11,000 ft. elevation, the very range-restricted Volcano Junco hopped up to us within minutes of our arrival, proving itself to be a very entertaining little bird. From here we descended steeply into the delightful Savegre Valley, where a brief roadside stop before arriving at the lodge teased us with a good look at a female quetzal.
We were up early the next morning to join the crowd looking for quetzals, and it wasn’t long before it paid off, with a nice sighting of a perfect male of this glorious bird, considered by many the most beautiful in the world. In the process of tracking him down, a much more obscure specialty of this region was heard uttering its high-pitched two-note song, so when the quetzal disappeared we turned our attention to a singing Wrenthrush. Completely unique in appearance and extremely secretive in the dense understory, this little gray bird is now classified with the warblers. Found only in these highlands, it is rarely seen well, but to our surprise this individual was highly responsive and appeared right in front of us, the orange crown its only spot of color amidst the thick vine tangles. Soon it was time to return for breakfast, but en route we were delayed by a ridiculous male quetzal feeding right beside the road and even perching on the telephone wires! After such success with the quetzal, the rest of the day and the next morning found us quietly wandering the valley gardens, woodlots, and forest edge, thoroughly enjoying a wide variety of the mountain birds, including Ruddy Treerunner, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Collared Redstart, Flame-throated Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and Yellow-thighed Finch amongst others. We were lucky to find a remarkably calm pair of Spotted Wood-Quail methodically foraging through a woodlot, as a pair of Collared Trogons perched overhead, while later yet, another male quetzal would appear to enchant us with scope looks.
The final leg of the tour took us from the highlands down to the Caribbean lowlands, where we concentrated our efforts on the world-renowned La Selva Research Station. Along the entry road here it was almost impossible to know where to look first, as birds popped out all over the place in our first few hours afield, including a beautiful male Black-throated Trogon that sat still close at hand and looked us over for a long time; our first Broad-billed Motmots and toucans; a male Snowy Cotinga; and a very cooperative Rufous-winged Woodpecker that gave us a great study of an uncommon and local species. Perhaps best of all this morning was a trifecta of spectacular “gamebirds” that have been extirpated in many areas by hunting and forest clearance. The first to appear were several ridiculously tame Crested Guans feeding in a fruiting shrub, while later a Great Tinamou strolled across the path (to see any tinamou is wonderful, as they are typically only voices in the forest understory). Best of all was an amazing male Great Curassow that foraged along an open path right in front of us for over 15 minutes! Displaying White-collared Manakins completed the morning, while that afternoon our local guide Lenin somehow found an incredibly well-concealed Vermiculated Screech-Owl for us to view.
Our second day at La Selva continued filling in special blanks on our list, with a very alert Rufous-tailed Jacamar sitting by a trail; a Pied Puffbird sitting up in full view in the scopes; and a calm pair of stunning Rufous Motmots sitting motionless beside a forest interior trail. Most surprising was a Tropical Mockingbird that proved to be a new addition to the list for this heavily-birded site. That afternoon the rain finally caught up to us, but in spite of it we drove out into the open country for a late-afternoon “parrot watch.” The rain let up for only a few minutes, but the timing was perfect, as just then a pair of spectacular Great Green Macaws came screeching in and landed in a huge remnant tree for us to enjoy, a great ending to a great time in this region. All too soon it was our final day and time to head back to San Jose, but not before we enjoyed hummingbirds one more time, including several male Snowcaps and a tiny but perfect Black-crested Coquette dancing around the verbena flowers.