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Costa Rica Part II Recap

By: Raymond VanBuskirk

January 8, 2020:

Costa Rican coffee, high winds, and partly cloudy skies greeted us for our first morning of neotropical birding. A jaunt through the gardens at Hotel Bougainvillea was a nice introduction to tropical bird life, with great views of White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, Clay-colored Thrush, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and after much searching, a very cooperative Lesson’s Motmot. It was fun to connect with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Summer Tanager, a Yellow Warbler, and a Broad-winged Hawk on their tropical wintering grounds.

From here it was a straight shot downslope to the Pacific Lowlands where we checked-in at Hotel Villa Lapas, took a short break, and then headed out for a sunset boat trip on the Tarcoles River.

A small group of Scarlet Macaws welcomed us to the boat dock and we watched in amazement as their rainbow plumage faded in and out of the swaying leaves above. How such large and gaudy colored birds can camouflage so easily is simply amazing. After a healthy dose of Scarlet Macaw Surprise we loaded onto a covered, pontoon boat equipped with comfy seats for all. Despite the comfortable seating, we spent very little time on our bums as the enormous American Crocodiles and abundant bird life kept us constantly on our toes. At sunset the Lesser Nighthawks danced together in a delicious sunset sky while the throaty call of a Collared Forest-Falcon ushered in the night.

January 9:

We were out the doors a few minutes before sunrise, greeted by the dawn chorus of tropical birds on the grounds of Hotel Villa Lapas. The morning activity was advertised as a bird “walk”, though there were so many birds visiting the large leafless tree near the pool it was more of a bird stand. Slaty-tailed Trogons, Blue-gray Tanagers, and Buff-throated Saltators filled our binoculars. After breakfast we were off to the famous Carara National Park.

The trails at Carara NP didn’t disappoint. The tangled columns of vines did their best to conceal Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, and Barred Antshrikes while the rocks delineating the edge of the trail provided an open stage for a singing Buff-rumped Warbler.

The real treat of the morning was the discovery of an army ant swarm just off the edge of the trail and a battalion of hungry birds (ant-things, as I like to call them) following along close behind. These army ant swarms move silently across the landscape devouring any small animals that get in their way! We watched in delight as five Black-faced Antthrushes, seven Bicolored Antbirds, five Chestnut-backed Antbirds, two Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, three Orange-billed Sparrows, and four Gray-headed Tanagers foraged, in the open, right before our very eyes!

We returned to Hotel Villa Lapas for the afternoon and birdwatched along the river before sundown. A few folks stayed up late for a night hike, encountering a small group of Olingos (the Kinkajou’s more agile, nonprehensile-tailed cousin) feeding on balsa tree flowers, a Common Pauraque along the entry road, and a calling Spectacled Owl that was eventually spotted high in the canopy.

January 10:

A short morning bird walk produced nice scope views of Golden-naped Woodpecker, a regional endemic found only in Costa Rica’s southern Pacific region and neighboring Panama, but still no Toucans or Aracaris.  After breakfast we loaded the van to head northward. Moments before pulling out of Hotel Villa Lapas the Fiery-billed Aracari showed itself, sporting a rainbow beak and investigating a nearby woodpecker cavity. As we watched the Aracari bouncing around overhead, a Yellow-throated Toucan flew in to have a look at all the commotion. Check. And Check. Before long we were off, winding our way northward into the dry Guanacaste region of Pacific Costa Rica.

After a long drive, a quick stop at a mostly birdless salt farm, and a traffic jam which allowed time for a binocular cleaning booth, we arrived at La Ensenada Lodge, where we had a quick bite to eat and got checked into our rooms. During the afternoon break, our local guides found a roosting Pacific Screech-Owl in the nearby mango grove and we all enjoyed nice scope views before heading out for an evening on a nearby cattle ranch.

Driving into the ranch we spotted multiple family groups of Double-striped Thick-knees finding relief from the tropical sun in whatever sliver of shade was available. The ranch produced a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, White-lored Gnatcatcher, a wonderful roosting Spectacled Owl, and a very unexpected Jabiru in a nearby wet field. To cap off the evening on the ranch, we discovered a Zone-tailed Hawk carrying a young green iguana, and a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots sitting motionless in our scopes, sun beaming off their brilliant plumage.

January 11:

We were out the door well before sunrise today in preparation for our mangrove boat trip. As we walked downslope towards the Nicoya Gulf Pacific, Screech-Owls dueted out of the darkness. A pair of Double-striped Thick-knees called incessantly; probably the same duo that vocalized all night long outside our bedroom windows.

The morning air was crisp and the water flat. We enjoyed a fabulous sunrise from the boat as we made our way towards the complex of mangrove forests in the upper gulf. Magnificent Frigatebirds dotted the sky and rimmed the treetops. Herons and egrets left their rookeries for morning feeding grounds.

Once into the mangroves we focused on finding the denizens of this flooded forest, namely the Mangrove Hummingbird, a Costa Rican endemic. It didn’t take long to locate a Mangrove Hummingbird but getting a good look was another story. We watched in frustration as it zoomed back-and-forth overhead, stopping for a second, and then repeating its route. Despite a lot of work we never had satisfactory looks, but that’s how birding goes sometimes. We did however encounter three Mangrove Cuckoos, a Mangrove Vireo, a pair of Panama Flycatchers, and a couple of hyperactive Rufous-necked Wood-Rails darting in and out of the mangroves.

Now, one must earn their breakfast on a Costa Rican Reader Rendezvous so we skipped the dock landing and went straight for a bit of morning rock-climbing. After a scramble and a half we were up the slippery rocks and breakfast was at our noses.

After breakfast, we did a bit of birding around the lodge before tackling the long and winding road that leads to Monteverde. Along the way we encountered a family of Stripe-headed Sparrows feeding very close to the roadside. We arrived at Ficus Lodge, watched the sun set over the Nicoya Gulf, and had an excellent dinner.

January 12:

After breakfast and a rainstorm, we made our way to the first stop of the day, Curi-Cancha Reserve. This reserve protects a small patch of cloud forest habitat and offers an extensive network of trails for exploring.

We were overwhelmed by birds from the get-go with a trail full of Mountain Thrushes and a couple of very bold Slate-throated Redstarts tracking the insects at our feet. We made our way up the muddy reserve trails toward a fruiting avocado tree, where we’d hope to encounter a Resplendent Quetzal. Along the way we discovered a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias and a brilliant male Elegant Euphonia feeding in a small patch of mistletoe. After 30 minutes of waiting under the avocado tree, a female Resplendent Quetzal made a brief appearance. We all had nice views of her backside and before long she was gone, morphing back into a cloud.

A brief and rainy stop at the reserve’s hummingbird feeding station produced an overwhelming number of these high-energy pollinators. In total we estimated 11 Lesser Violetears, 15 Green-crowned Brilliants, 15 Purple-throated Mountain-gems, three Magenta-throated Woodstars, 10 Violet Sabrewings, six Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, and 15 Coppery-headed Emeralds (another Costa Rican endemic). Surely this was an underestimate!

After a nice Italian lunch we headed for the canopy bridges at Monteverde Skywalk. Much wandering along the trails and cable bridges produced multiple mixed flocks and very close views of a female Resplendent Quetzal.

January 13:

This morning we made our way to the nearby La Calandria Field Station, where we were able to observe a bird banding station at work. The banding team had been working since before sunrise and by the time we arrived they already had a young male Long-tailed Manakin to show us – wowee zowee! Our hearts would’ve been happy with the manakin “in the hand” but we were fortunate to also see a Slate-throated Redstart, a Wilson’s Warbler, and an Olivaceous Woodcreeper (that Raymond got to band!).

We said goodbye to the banding station, attended a presentation on the history of Monteverde, did a little shopping, and then made our way towards Buena Vista Hotel for an extravagant final dinner together.

January 14:

Some folks had very early wakeups for their departures, while the rest of us slowly made our way to breakfast, or made one last pass through the hotel gardens. Hugs and a few last laughs sent us on our way.

It was a truly wonderful birding trip, with countless laughs, ineffable forests, delectable food, some really great coffee, a whole bunch of lifers, and many new friendships. There’s only one last thing to say — Pura Vida!

Check out our gallery of the event!