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Costa Rica - Trip Report

Costa Rica, February 23-March 6, 2004

Notes : The birds mentioned are just some of the 308 AOU species from the trip list that were seen by at least one of the tour participants (not just guides). Tropical Kingbird, Great-tailed Grackle and Baltimore Oriole were seen every day of the tour, and Cattle Egret, Black and Turkey vultures, Great Kiskadee , the graceful Blue-and-white Swallow, Clay-colored Robin, Tennessee Warbler (the most common U.S. nesting bird that winters in Costa Rica) and Rufous-collared Sparrow almost every day. It was a tour highlight to see 26 hummingbird species with relative ease, as well as 6 trogons and of course, Scarlet Macaw and Resplendent Quetzal , which we saw on 3 occasions.

The dates include the Carara extension, March 3-5, with departure on the 6th for those who stayed.

Certainly the most dramatic event of the trip was watching a Bat Falcon hunt for a BIG hummingbird at La Paz. While we were at the lower hummingbird feeding area, someone happened to look up and see a falcon cutting through the sky at tree level. Then it went down out of sight. We were all alerted and began to watch. Within seconds the falcon was back up in the sky, slicing the air then diving again. At first we wondered if there were several, but when we got to the trail below the hummingbird feeding area, we could watch the entire routine and knew it was just one falcon. Suddenly, within inches of the ground and inches of our feet, a sleek Bat Falcon raced past, then drove itself heavenward with unbelievable speed. On either side of the trail where we stood transfixed were shrubs and trees where the hummingbirds flew back and forth as they frequented the feeders. We were entranced, and watched as time after time the falcon repeated this maneuver, each cycle lasting several seconds and top speed reaching perhaps 75 mph. Maybe faster? We could hear the wind pass over its wings and maybe did not just imagine that we could feel a small breeze it created as it agilely hurtled itself just inches from each of us. Then perhaps on its 20th pass, having ignored the small hummers, with unbelievable precision the falcon triumphantly swooped upward with its prey, a hapless Violet Sabrewing. What a spectacular event to have witnessed!.


February 23 - Some in our tour were lucky enough to arrive in Costa Rica during the middle of the day. So we spent some delightful time walking the paths in the beautiful gardens of Bougainvillea Hotel. There were birds even in that urban setting, the hotel's providing habitat for easily seen targets like the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Grayish Saltator. Clay-colored Robins were everywhere, behaving like robins we're accustomed to seeing. Swifts, most numerous being Black Swift, concentrated ahead of a weather system moving in. The rain came and we returned to our rooms until dinner in the hotel's lovely dining room.

February 24 - As we drove to the Sarapiqui River area via the Poas Volcano route, we began to see the first of several birds we saw almost every day of the trip (see the notes above). We observed several birds at the volcano's national park visitors' center and on the paved trail to the caldera of the volcano. In spite of many people walking the trail, the "good" birds were there. Among the many species were Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher, Sooty Robin, Wilson's Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Slaty Flowerpiercer and Yellow-thighed Finch. We drove on to Selve Verde Lodge where Mario led us on a tour of the grounds. We were stunned by amazingly good looks at a Slaty-breasted Tinamou as it slunk through the thickets. We also observed Cinnamon Becard, Northern Barred and Cocoa woodcreepers, Orange-billed Sparrow, Montezuma Oropendola, Amazon and Green kingfishers, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucans.

February 25 - Some of us got up for an early morning walk around Selve Verde. Most exciting was the Sunbittern poking its way along the river's edge in the stones. A very good way to start out the day! In addition, we saw (and heard!) a Ringed kingfisher flying up and down the river and found a Buff-throated Saltator. After breakfast we drove to the La Selva field station for the Organization for Tropical Studies. The Long-tailed Tyrant, easily seen near the office, was probably the bird garnering the most oohs and ahhs. Other species seen in the area were Limpkin, King Vulture, Olive-throated Parakeet, White-crowned Parrot, Gray-rumped Swift, Long-billed Hermit and White-necked Jacobin on nests, Yellow-bellied Elaenia (suffering its usual bad hair day), Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Paltry Tyrannulet, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Dusky-capped and Piratic flycatchers, Bananaquit (what became a frequently seen bird); Crimson-collared, Passerini's, Blue-gray, Palm and Silver-throated tanagers; Blue Dacnis; Green, Shining and Red-legged honeycreepers; Yellow-crowned and Olive-backed euphonias.

In the afternoon we took a covered launch trip down the Sarapiqui River, literally the coolest way to spend a warm tropical afternoon. Driving to and from the river and along the river banks we found Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Green Heron, Green Ibis, Purple Gallinule, Red-billed Pigeon (the least visible field mark of this pigeon is the spot of red on its bill…), Green-breasted Mango, Bright-rumped Attila; Gray-capped and White-ringed flycatchers; Gray-breasted and Purple martins; Mangrove, Northern Rough-winged and Southern Rough-winged swallows; Bay Wren, Plain-colored Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Black-striped Sparrow, and Black-cowled Oriole.

February 26 - Again, some of us got up early to walk around the grounds with Mario to see what might pop out at us. And we got lucky! Out in the river was a Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and the Sunbittern was still hanging around. We "picked up" Red-lored and Mealy parrots, the Bright-rumped Attila for those who missed it earlier, White-collared Manakin, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. On our way to La Virgen del Socorro, we stopped alongside the road above a pond where there were Least and Pied-billed grebes. Then we walked the road in La Virgen del Socorro. Nice easy walk, and some nice easy birds! Swallow-tailed Kite, Barred and White hawks, more Black Swifts, another White-necked Jacobin, Red-headed Barbet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and our first Slate-throated Redstart.

It was nearing lunch time, so we drove on up toward La Paz gardens. Along the way we stopped at a rushing waterfall and found Black Phoebe, as well as Torrent Tyrannulet, and American Dipper working the white water. Amazing birds! At La Paz, there were tables on the patio right beside the feeders, so we carried our plates from the buffet out to the view. Wow! There and in the feeder area below the butterfly garden, we observed so many beautiful hummingbirds; it was breathtaking. Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Green Violet-ear, Green Thorntail, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Coppery-headed Emerald, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant and Magenta-throated Woodstar. In addition to hummingbirds, there were Chimney and White-collared swifts, Prong-billed Barbet, the first of many Common Bush-Tanagers, many Silver-throated Tanagers, Bay-headed Tanager, another Slaty Flowerpiercer and Yellow-thighed Finch.

On our way back to Selve Verde, we stopped at the famous San Fernando waterfall viewing area where there are feeders stocked for hummingbirds and tanagers. We were not disappointed. Here we saw some of the same hummingbirds, but additionally Brown Violet-ear and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. The fruit feeders attracted Emerald Toucanet, Golden-hooded Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

February 27 - Arenal Volcano was our destination, but of course we made lots of stops along the way. Beside a farmer’s pond we observed several Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, as well as not-so-wild Muscovy Ducks. However, on the drive we picked up our first Gray-headed Chachalaca, Gray and Harris’s hawks, Crested Caracara, a flock of Orange-chinned Parakeets, as well as Blue-black and Yellow-faced grassquits. As we drove up the road to our lodge, Mario spotted an Orange-bellied Trogon pair which looked us over as closely as we looked them over. It was raining, but that didn’t dampen our interest in getting good looks at them. At the lodge the fruit feeders hosted a wonderful assortment of tanagers that included Hepatic, Summer, Passerini’s, Blue-gray, Palm, Emerald and Golden-hooded, as well as the more diminutive Green, Shining and Red-legged honeycreepers.

February 28 - We’d planned to take a leisurely walk around the grounds of the Smithsonian Gardens at the lodge, but there was still a steady rain so we met in one of the lodge’s conference areas to catch up our bird lists. We didn’t accomplish much on that front because there was hummingbird activity at the verbena hedges outside the large windows. We had beautiful views of Violet-headed Hummingbird, Black-crested Coquette, and Green Thorntail. After breakfast we watched the tanagers some more and discussed the field marks of a very cooperative Tropical Pewee.

We started the drive to Monteverde, the highway meandering along Lake Arenal for miles and miles. Then we began the bumpier ride up to Santa Elena. We stopped for birds and lunch along the way, enjoying both! Two new trip birds we observed at our stops were Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Steely-vented Hummingbird and a good look at a Black-cowled Oriole. After checking into the hotel, we did a little birding before dinner, finding the now-familiar Blue-crowned Motmot, Clay-colored Robin and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

February 29 - The morning of our first full day at Monteverde was spent walking in the cloud forest reserve. Highlights were a Black Guan, the first Resplendent Quetzal (seen this day by only one senior who needed an even slower pace than the rest of the group, so was behind with one of the guides, proving that “At Your Pace”© doesn’t mean you won’t see the “good birds”!), Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Immaculate Antbird, Mountain Elaenia, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied AND Yellowish flycatchers, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Mountain and White-throated robins, Slate-throated Redstart and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. At feeders we found Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Green Violet-ear, Coppery-headed Emerald, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, Magenta-throated Woodstar and the opportunistic Bananaquit and Common Bush-Tanager.

After lunch Mario led us on a trip below the cloud forest through a much drier forest. And what a trip it was! We walked along a winding trail, viewing such birds as Baltimore Orioles, Great-crested Flycatcher and Brown Jays. Then Mario noticed a lot of activity just behind some forest edge not far from the open area we occupied. As we quietly crept closer we saw army ants break into the open and the show began -- Squirrel Cuckoo, Blue-crowned Motmot, Emerald Toucanet; House, Rufous-breasted, and Rufous-and-white wrens; Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush; Black-throated Green, Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped warblers, Summer and Blue-gray tanagers, White-eared Ground-sparrow, Wood and Swainson’s thrushes. The birds seemed oblivious to their captivated audience and we were enthralled by the feeding frenzy.

March 1 - One thing about visiting Monteverde is that the trails can get congested quickly, especially if there are confirmed quetzal sightings. So on this day, we arrived at the forest earlier than would otherwise be necessary, being the first to hit “our” trail; Mario had a destination in mind! And we were not disappointed. After showing us another Black Guan and encountering a group of Black-breasted Wood-Quail that crossed our path, Mario led us directly to a small ravine where he had seen a male quetzal just days earlier. Then we waited while he and our driver Patron (who also has a great eye for spotting birds) scanned this bird’s favored perches. We didn’t have to wait long for the quetzal. A beautiful male flew in and perched, then “hopped” from one tree to another. There were a lot of people on the trail by now, but we had arrived at a prime viewing spot early enough for everyone in our group to ‘scope the bird before it dropped over the hill above the ravine. Yes, some of its perches afforded better viewing than others, but we couldn’t complain about the 2 or 3 minutes we had with this incredible bird.

We turned around and returned to the trailhead which was now closed because there were as many people on that trail as the rangers wanted to have at one time. Good thing we had arrived early, a demonstration of excellent planning by Mario!

We then took a broad easily walked track back into the forest. We talked about the mixed flocks and how to maximize the limited time with such a bird group. There is just no way you can identify every bird in every mixed flock because they come through so fast. The solution is to get the details in mind one bird at a time before moving your binoculars to the next! So in the flocks that crossed our path were Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Ruddy Treerunner, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Ochraceous Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Collared Redstart; Golden-crowned, Rufous-capped and Three-striped warblers, and the appointed leader of mixed flocks -- the Common Bush-Tanager. Besides mixed flock birds we saw Ruddy Pigeon, many Black-faced Solitaire and terrific views of another quetzal! This female was in sunlight, her green back truly dazzling and iridescent. She was in no hurry to leave and we were the only ones on the trail. She was still there when we continued on our way after everyone had opportunity to watch her as long as they wanted. On our way out of the cloud forest we visited the Hummingbird Gallery once more where we found the “missing” Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

March 2 - We left Monteverde after breakfast and began the descent to the Pacific slope. Along the way we made several stops and found birds of this drier habitat, including Pacific Screech-Owl and Bat Falcon (perched this time). Our destination was a return to higher elevations at Villa Blanca in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest. Here we found Crested Guan, White-tipped Dove, Brown-hooded Parrot, Spotted Woodcreeper, incredible numbers of Silver-throated Tanagers and White-naped Brush-Finch. After dark, we walked on the pavement looking for and finding the Common Pauraque. We then retired to our charming cottages with their clay stoves, which some took advantage of because it was cooler up there!

March 3 - In the morning, we birded around Villa Blanca until the driver came for the participant who was not going with us on the extension to Carara. There were more good looks at Black-striped Sparrow, Buff-throated Saltator, and brush-finch, as well as a sighting of Gray-necked Wood-Rail near the hummingbird feeders.

We then began the drive to the Pacific lowlands in the Tarcoles River area. Not too far from San Ramon was a Zone-tailed Hawk and further along were our first Inca Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. When we reached the Gulf of Nicoya, we began to find sea-faring birds like Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Laughing Gull.

In the afternoon we checked into our lodge and did some birding there and near the Tarcoles River bridge. At the river, we found White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Osprey, Crane Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Whimbrel, Willet Black-necked Stilt, our first evening flight of the brilliant and noisy Scarlet Macaw, Common Nighthawk, and Rufous-naped Wren.

March 4 - Since it can really be warm in the Pacific lowlands, we made 2 separate trips into Carara National Park, one in the early morning and another in the early evening after our covered launch tour of the Tarcoles River. What a day of birdwatching! It started out with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl on the lodge grounds and a Striped Cuckoo beside the road to the highway. Mario heard the cuckoo from inside the bus, so Patron stopped and we climbed out to see this unusual looking cuckoo. On the two Park walks we saw many new birds including Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Purple-crowned Fairy; Black-headed, Baird’s, Violaceous and Slaty-tailed trogons; Fiery-billed Aracari; Golden-naped and Pale-billed woodpeckers; Plain Xenops, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Barred and Black-hooded antshrikes; Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky and Chestnut-backed antbirds; Northern Bentbill, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher; Yellow-olive and Brown-crested flycatchers; White-winged Becard, Riverside Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher; White-shouldered, Cherrie’s, Blue-gray and Palm tanagers.

After lunch we drove to the river where a flock Orange-fronted Parakeets met us. It just got better from there! Along the riverbanks, amongst mangrove stands and on sandbars were new species for our observation. Besides birds we had already seen one place or another, we found Anhinga, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Boat-billed Heron, Wood Stork, Double-toothed Kite, Mangrove Black-Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail; Black-bellied, Semipalmated and Wilson’s plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Least and Pectoral sandpipers; Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Royal Tern, Common Ground-Dove; Amazon, Green and American Pygmy- kingfishers; Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Barn and Mangrove swallows, Yellow “Mangrove” and Prothonotary warblers; and American Redstart. As we drove away from the river we saw Bank Swallows lined up on utility wires.

After our 2nd short trip into Carara National Park, just as it was getting dark at our lodge, Mario predicted that a Short-tailed Nighthawk would appear within 5 minutes, and of course, it did. What a way to end a spectacular day of birding!

March 5 - After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed for a dry forest. Along the tree-bordered drive from the lodge a Black-throated Trogon sat and allowed us an easy side view. Then he turned, back gleaming metallic green from head to tail, and flew down the road and across the highway. We’d seen many Scarlet Macaws flying to and from their daily haunts during the time we’d been in the area, but this morning we had the good fortune to find two of them climbing around atop a tree snag beside the road. Flying macaws are spectacular, but the viewing is so much more satisfying when they are more or less stationary.

In the dry forest we found some different birds that prefer that type of habitat, as well as some that are seen elsewhere. Some of the birds were White-necked Puffbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Nutting’s and Streaked flycatchers, Rose-throated Becard, Red-eyed Vireo, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Banded Wren, Blue Seedeater, and Stripe-headed Sparrow. During the morning’s drive and walk we also viewed a Lineated Woodpecker.

On our way back toward San Jose, we had one final location to check out, that of a roosting Black-and-white Owl. He was there, as was a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl just a few yards away. We drove through the outskirts of San Jose up to our beautiful hotel on a hill overlooking the city. There were beautiful grounds to walk, but most everyone was tired and very ready to rest up before we reviewed the trip list and enjoyed our farewell dinner.

BATS - We were fortunate that one of the tour participants, Joe Ferrari, has a real interest in bats as well as birds. He is quick to note that he is “not a professional biologist, but a person who is an interested amateur”. We not only learned something about these amazing creatures, but we actually saw these bats that he describes. We most likely would not otherwise have known some of these were anywhere near! In response to our request he wrote these notes for our trip report. Thanks, Joe!

  • It seems appropriate that on a birding tour we would also see several species of the only kind of mammals that can fly, bats. And bats make up almost half of the mammal species in Costa Rica. One big difference between bird and bat behavior is that, while birds are creatures of the day, bats are nocturnal. So we didn't see any bats flying, we saw them roosting, where they spend the daylight hours hanging head downward. All together we saw four species of bats. As was true of so many of the birds we saw in Costa Rica, all four are tropical species never seen north of Mexico.
  • While walking one of the forest trails at La Selva our local guide spotted a group of Lesser White-lined Bats. They were clinging to the trunk of a tree just off the forest path, about 25 feet high.
  • When we were cruising the Sarapiqui River, we came to a large tree lying on its side at river's edge. Lined up, one above another, on one of the large roots facing the river was a group of about half a dozen Proboscis Bats, which are almost always seen close to water.
  • Back at Selva Verde there was a Greater White-lined Bat clinging to the outside wall of one of the lodges, right under a roof overhang.
  • The fourth spotting of bats was at Villa Lapas. Roosting well hidden under a folded banana leaf right along one of the walkways near the eating area was another group of about a half dozen bats. With their bold white facial markings and gray color, they were most probably Common Tent-making Bats.
  • Both species of White-lined Bats and the Proboscis Bat are insect eaters, part of nature's pest control. The Common Tent-making Bat and its near relatives feed on fruit and nectar. In doing so they help disperse seeds and pollinate native plants.
  • Bats are known for roost fidelity. They typically reuse the same roost over time. If we were to return to the roost sites where these four species were seen they would probably still be there, or at least nearby.