Short Costa Rica: Toucan to Quetzals Mar 04—12, 2017

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 2017 “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 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.

Prong-billed Barbet

Prong-billed Barbet— 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 lethargic Prong-billed Barbet that sat perfectly still for us at close range, while some lucky folks also saw a male Red-headed Barbet sneak through the thickets here.  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.  After lunch we had the good luck of encountering an amazing mixed-flock of forest birds slowly foraging upslope to the edge where we stood.  It was overwhelming to have so many unfamiliar birds all around us, including an incredible five species of woodcreepers (the best was the rarely-seen Brown-billed Scythebill), plus Red-faced Spinetails, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Ochraceous Wren, Three-striped Warblers and more. "Whew! That was truly incredible!”  By midafternoon it was time to move on to our lodging in the lowlands, where upon arrival we were immediately distracted by the many birds coming to the lodge feeders.

Great Curassow

Great Curassow— Photo: David Wolf


Our first day in the lowlands had us up early and off to the world-famous La Selva Field Station.  The Sarapiqui region had been quite dry for days prior to our arrival, but the clouds and rain moved in overnight, and dawn brought gray skies and light rain. Turning to “Plan B,” instead of birding the entry road we moved to the patio by the cafeteria, and from this sheltered spot we watched the parade of great birds unfold.  First to appear were several Black-mandibled Toucans that glided into a fruiting tree, while shortly thereafter a Slaty-tailed Trogon perched in full view.  As the mist lifted and we moved in for closer views, two female-plumaged Great Curassows calmly walked out of the forest right in front of us. Not long thereafter a pair of curassows appeared nearby, the adult male diligently following the female.  To see these magnificent birds around the most “peopled” part of La Selva still astounds us, as this species is heavily hunted where not protected, and it has taken decades for them to re-populate the La Selva forests.  Now they seem ridiculously tame and, as it turned out, we would see them multiple times, on all three of our days here!  Since the rain had stopped, we moved on across the footbridge, stopping for a White-necked Puffbird perched in the canopy, two Green Ibis on the riverbank below us, and then several Crested Guans resting quietly in a fruiting tree.  Nearby, a short foray into the forest produced a Great Tinamou with a tiny chick, seemingly oblivious to our presence as they slowly foraged on the forest floor.  In most places tinamous are simply disembodied voices, heard often but rarely seen, but like the curassow and guans they are good indicators of a well-protected forest.  Of course, between our sightings of these big birds we also saw a wealth of the smaller species.  Our return trip in the late afternoon produced a different assortment, highlighted by Mealy Parrots feeding in a guava bush and a male White-collared Manakin, while we ended this first day here with a ridiculously funny male curassow frantically chasing a guan in circles around a guava tree it wanted to claim for itself.

Our second day at La Selva proved quite different, as the clouds lifted and the sun came out, and we birded along the entry road.  There was so much action in the early morning that we hardly knew where to look first. Flycatchers were prominent, and we began with lessons on how to tell the many “look-alikes” apart, but more appreciated were the bold Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers feeding on a Heliconia flower just a few feet away from us, our first Broad-billed Motmot, and the sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar that finally came into view.  Remarkably, we also found two female two-toed sloths with babies.  As the morning warmed, we were lucky to spot two soaring King Vultures getting up (one an adult), while later our local guides showed us an amazingly well-concealed Vermiculated Screech-Owl roosting low down in a dense thicket and a rarely-seen Pied Puffbird.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker— Photo: David Wolf


We ended the day with a “parrot watch,” hoping 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.  While waiting we were distracted by a parade of birds bathing in the puddles of the dirt track, including a pair of sneaky White-throated Crakes.  Distant loud parrot voices finally revealed a pair of macaws perched in a distant tree, but to our surprise they were Scarlets.  This spectacular bird is slowly re-colonizing this region after an absence of 50 years and was quite unexpected.  Then, finally, a single Great Green moved into view in a huge tree left amidst the clearing, giving us all scope views.  Success!

Our final day at La Selva was again quite different.  It was sunny and hot, and the birds were much quieter.  Highlights were a male Snowy Cotinga that made one quick fly-by over the canopy, while before crossing the bridge we found our major quest bird for the morning, a big Rufous Motmot perched quietly in the midstory.  A hike through the tall riverine forest was mostly quiet, at least until a group of very excited Purple-throated Fruitcrows appeared, the male puffing out his iridescent throat feathers as he defended his territory.  Our final afternoon in the lowlands was spent at La Quinta, enjoying and photographing birds like the Red-legged Honeycreepers and Crimson-collared and Golden-hooded tanagers amidst the commoner species at the feeders.

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal— Photo: David Wolf


From the Caribbean lowlands we moved to the high mountains in the center of the country, descending to the Savegre Valley in time for a quick late afternoon stop.  To our surprise and pleasure we soon found a female Resplendent Quetzal sitting quietly on the forest edge, near a fruiting tree, and we were all enjoying it in the scope when Mimi spotted the male sitting low in the understory.  We “oohed and aahed” as they changed perches, giving us views from all angles, and then without warning they both flew off into the forest upslope, leaving us spellbound, only to be distracted by a plump chicken-like bird that jumped across the road.  It “froze” in position just inside the forest, revealing that it was a Spotted Wood-Quail!  This bird is typically quite elusive, so to see one this well was very special. What a magical introduction to the mountains!

The next morning was sparkling and clear as we began learning and tracking down the many small birds of the area, quite different from those of the lowlands.  Many are unique to these highlands, and in the small mixed-flocks we regularly encountered birds like the Ruddy Treerunner, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Black-cheeked and Flame-throated warblers, and Collared Redstart, among others. We followed a male quetzal through a woodlot, as he called and checked out a potential nest hole, while a loud rattle like a machine gun alerted us to a displaying Black Guan that landed in close view on the forest edge.  Our afternoon excursion to the high-country páramo produced a ridiculously bold pair of  endemic Volcano Juncos and specialties like the weird Large-footed Finch and brilliant Fiery-throated Hummingbird.  However, our favorite small bird of the mountains was the Spangle-cheeked Tanager. Not always easy to find, this subtly beautiful specialty was colorful, cooperative, and seen numerous times on this trip, right up to the last moment before leaving for San Jose.  All too soon our wonderful trip was over, but never to be forgotten.  Special thanks go to our driver Fernando and to a very compatible and fun group.