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Reflections on Costa Rica

by Dawn Hewitt | Managing Editor, Bird Watcher’s Digest

True, it rained a lot while we were in the land of “pura vida.” (Our guide, Mario Cordoba of Crescentia Expeditions, explained to us that Costa Ricans claim that phrase, and take it to heart. It means something like: I am happy to be alive! Life is good! The phrase can be used in place of hello, good bye, and you’re welcome. Consequently, we used it a lot during our wonderful week there!)

Cabanis’s ground-sparrow, photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Cabanis’s ground-sparrow, photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Before we even left the San Jose metropolitan area (and the luxurious Hotel Bougainvillea, with its magnificent botanical gardens), we had found a Costa Rican endemic: Cabanis’s ground-sparrow, plus several other Central American endemics. Our trip was off to a great start. We met our terrific bus driver, Ricardo, who is a good birder with a keen eye, and even owns a Swarovski spotting scope! He was helpful and kind, and he found us a bunch of great birds during the week! As crimson-fronted parakeets sailed overhead in flock after noisy flock, we headed northwest, and stopped to pick up a birding guide-in-training, Alexa Stickel, who accompanied us for four days. She, too, is a great birder, attentive to others, friendly, and fun, and it was a pleasure to have her along.

Our first stop was at a hummingbird garden, where we tallied ten species of hummers, including the unmistakable snowcap, which is iridescent purple with a flat, white head! We stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant and birded from our table. A three-toed sloth rested in a tree nearby, and a boat-billed heron eyed us from a shrub behind the restaurant.

3-toed sloth. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

3-toed sloth. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Later, we birded in Arenal Volcano National Park, on a road next to the dam that formed Arenal Lake, which provides hydropower to much of the country. Our destination was the Observatory Lodge in the Arenal Volcano’s shadow. Sadly, we never saw the top of the perfectly conical volcano: Clouds capped it as we arrived, and that was the best view we had of it. Heavy rain and mist obstructed our view of the mountain, but not of the feeders at the lodge! Oh my! Collared aracaris and green honeycreepers and brown jays—spittin’ distance from the deck! A king vulture soared by!

As darkness fell (fast, as it does in Costa Rica), it started raining. Hard. So, we checked in to our cozy rooms and had dinner at the charming lodge. Rain continued all night, sometimes heavy and hard, but that didn’t stop us from birding in the morning on the lodge’s well-manicured grounds. These grounds produced amazing hummingbirds (including the black-crested coquette and the purple-headed fairy), tanagers, euphonias, and even yellow-throated toucan! Because of the rain, we decided to bird by bus in the afternoon, which yielded a pair of white-throated magpie jays, scarlet-thighed dacnis, and great looks at a golden-winged warbler.

The next morning’s activities included a long walk over a hanging bridge at Arenal Sky Adventures Park. It was cool to hike in a true rain forest (which certainly earned its name that morning)! The highlight bird there was probably the orange-billed sparrow.

Our next major stop was at Selva Verde Lodge in the Caribbean Lowlands, where it was hot and rainy. Our accommodations were a bit rustic, but what a neat place! Soon after checking in, we found “Jesus Christ” lizards, which can walk on water, and a tiny strawberry poison dart frog! At the feeders just below the cafeteria’s deck: rufous motmots, black-cheeked woodpeckers, various tanagers, and even toucans and a semiplumbeous hawk came to dine! Scarlet and great-green macaws flew overhead! Some of us went for a walk along the Sarapiqui River and spotted a bare-throated tiger-heron and an Amazon kingfisher!

Birding along Police Station Road, where we found laughing and bat falcons, and great green macaws!!

Birding along Police Station Road, where we found laughing and bat falcons, and great green macaws!!

We visited “Police Station Road,” and found laughing and bat falcons, cinnamon woodpeckers, and a distant flock of perched great green macaws! At La Selva Biological Station, we got great looks at a snowy cotinga and a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. Other highlights were a close encounter with a Middle American screech-owl, and a great tinamou skulking through the forest. On our way out, we saw a river of turkey vultures and Swainson’s hawks heading south—hundreds and hundreds of them. What a spectacle!

Our final destination was high in the Talamanca Mountains of southeastern CR. We checked into the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge, which is perched on a steep hill with a magnificent view, and boasts super-active hummingbird feeders. When the light catches the gorget of the fiery-throated hummingbird, it becomes the flash of a rainbow spotlight. Gasps are involuntary, and weak-knees result. They vied with lesser violetears and endemic Talamanca and volcano hummingbirds—just a few feet from where we watched.

I admit: We're posing. The thing to notice here is the young woman kneeling. That's Alexa Stickel, who is an apprentice birding guide and joined us for four days. She's a terrific guide, attentive, and fun, and it was great to have her along.

I admit: We’re posing. The thing to notice here is the young woman kneeling. That’s Alexa Stickel, who is an apprentice birding guide and joined us for four days. She’s a terrific guide, attentive, and fun, and it was great to have her along.

Dusky nightjars vocalized outside our cabins, and we even got a look at one across the street from the cozy restaurant. We also found the eye-popping golden-browed chlorophonia, large-footed wren, mountain and sooty thrushes, and much more on the lodge grounds.

We traveled down, down, downhill to a rustic farm, whose owner is in a cooperative that keeps track of the location of resplendent quetzals. Tourists, then, have a sure-fire way of getting a look at what is arguably the most beautiful bird on the planet. The coop pays the farmers to allow tourists to view the quetzals, so this arrangement means that the farmers benefit from protecting quetzal habitat. What a brilliant idea! We rendezvousers were thrilled to be seeing THESE quetzals—three of them at one time! One perched right in front of us as it swallowed—whole—a wild avocado! Amazing!

We found lots of great birds as we hiked and birded in the Talamanca region: tufted flycatcher, American dipper, and the gorgeous silver-throated tanager. At lunch (at a Spanish restaurant!), a tiny scintillant hummingbird—the smallest in Central America—visited the feeders!

From here we could see Costa Rica's Pacific coast, and if there had not been clouds t the east, we'd have been able to see the Caribbean coast, too!

From here we could see Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, and if there had not been clouds t the east, we’d have been able to see the Caribbean coast, too!

Our last morning of birding took us to 11,000 feet, where we easily spotted a volcano junco, with its piercing yellow eyes! We hiked behind the Los Quetzales National Park, found a buffy tuftedcheek, and laughed at that bird name: It sounds like a porn star pseudonym!

The feeders were hopping at our final lunch stop along the road, Miriam’s Restaurant in tiny San Geraldo. We got phenomenal looks at both long-tailed and black-and-yellow silky flycatchers, plus northern emerald toucanets, acorn woodpecker, and numerous hummingbirds.

What a trip. Yes, it rained a lot every day. But oh, the birds! We ended up with 265 species (although not all of us saw every one). Most of us tallied a hundred or more lifers! Mario knew exactly where to take us to maximize the chances of seeing local specialties. We also made new friends with people whose company we enjoyed, and with whom we hope to bird—or at least hang out with—in the future. Birding is better with friends, and birding in Costa Rica with friends is unbeatable.

Check out photos of the event!