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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Costa Rica August 2005,
Trip report from family visit to Lake Arenal and Pacific Coast, 31 July 2005 to 19 August 2005. Flights, accommodation, and car hire all booked through the Internet – flights with Continental Airlines booked through Opodo.
Sunday 31 July
I awoke early to strange tropical sounds outside the cabin. Leaving the rest of the family to sleep I slipped on some clothes and went out intro the surprisingly cool morning. The gardens of the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn were lush, tropical and beautiful, even in the half light. Before long I started to see some of the birds responsible for the unfamiliar sounds – Montezuma oropendolas, rufous-naped wrens, clay-colored robins, great kiskadees, boat-billed flycatchers, and social flycatchers.
After breakfast (the first of many Costa Rican typical meals of rice, beans, plantain, and a ubiquitous dry pancake) we all felt the need to chill out in the gardens and by the pool. We being Geoff and Sarah Upton and our 14- year old twin children Rachel and Joe. We’d had a long and rather fraught journey the day before. Our scheduled flight from Gatwick to San Jose involved a change at Newark for which 1.25 hours was allowed. Our nagging suspicion that this wouldn’t be enough was reinforced when our departure from Gatwick was delayed by half an hour. When we realized we would have to go through U.S. immigration, baggage reclaim, and customs before checking on to our connecting flight the suspicion turned to certainty. An airport official confirmed we had missed our flight but after checking with the airline desk a few minutes later saw us running for the plane. For some reason it hadn’t left the gate – we never found out why but didn’t care
We arrived in Costa Rica as soon as we stepped breathless and tense on to the San Jose flight and looked at all those faces – some Spanish, some indigenous, some European – looking enquiringly but without hostility to see who had held their plane up.
The Vista del Valle Plantation Inn was ideal for our purpose of acclimatization and for me to start learning the birds. I had not been to Central America before so the majority of species were new. I only saw 17 species in the grounds and surrounding forest areas but these included blue-crowned motmots, masked and black-crowned tityras, hoffman’s woodpecker, plain-capped starthroat and cinnamon hummingbird.
Butterfly on squashed mangoes
Monday 1 August
Our hire car – a Toyota Rav 4 – arrived the day before so after another ‘tipico’ breakfast we set off north towards Lake Arenal, calling first at the colourful village of Sarchi where painted ox cart wheels and hand carts made for the tourists include images of rainforest birds and animals.
Although the road was better than we expected, having been newly resurfaced for most of the route, the journey was slow because much of the journey was in cloud forest which was in thick cloud. At Tabascon Hot Springs a little crowd of people with binoculars at the side of the road drew our attention to a troupe of howler monkeys in the trees above. This was the first of many encounters with howler monkeys – we saw or heard them virtually every day.
We arrived at Villa Encantada, which was to be our home for the next week, shortly before dusk and had a quick look round the gardens. We booked the villa having seen it on the internet. We were looking for something rather special - this was our 25th anniversary and in view of the mixed ages of our party we have to look for entertainment and activities as well as comfort and luxury. The villa clearly matched our idea of paradise with its 8 acres of tropical gardens and 32 more acres of surrounding rainforest, with walks down to Lake Arenal. The garden has its own lake you can swim and kayak in. And best of all, a quick look at the garden feeders before it got too dark produced rufous-tailed hummingbirds and golden-headed tanagers with the promise of more birds to come.
Tuesday 2 August
Getting up early before the rest of the family awoke had already become a habit and each morning I went to see what I could find in the grounds. Flocks of Montezuma oropendolas, orange-chinned and crimson-fronted parakeets and unidentified amazona parrots flew over every morning while around the house and garden most mornings I’d see black-striped sparrows, scarlet-rumped tanagers, grey-necked wood-rails, social flycatchers, sulphur-bellied flycatchers, rufous-tailed hummingbirds, sulphur-bellied and grey-capped flycatchers, masked tityras, cinnamon becards, hoffman’s and black-cheeked woodpeckers, yellow-throated euphonias, common tody-flycatchers, house wrens, buff-throated saltators, blue-black grassquits and thick-billed seed-finches. One day a party of grey-headed chachalacas stumbled through the garden.
A walk through the rainforest would always produce something – orange-billed sparrow, white-throated robin, squirrel cuckoo, grey-breasted wood-wren, long-billed gnatwren, streaked-headed woodcreeper, dusky-capped flycatcher, red-throated ant-tanager, bright-rumped attila and white-collared manakin were all seen in the short stretch of forest between the house and the lake. At the lake edge I’d usually see mangrove swallows, ringed and green kingfishers, anhinga, and buff-rumped warblers as well as forest birds such as squirrel cuckoos or sulphur-bellied flycatchers.
Lake Arenal is at about 2,000 feet above sea level and the mornings could be quite cool at first, becoming warm towards the middle of the day. As this was the rainy season we expected and we learned to wear waterproofs or just carry an umbrella. Cloud cover was fairly constant, but we were seldom in fog at this altitude. Biting insects were abundant, especially during or after rain, and so a good protective covering of insect repellant was necessary before going out. After the first day I learnt not to tuck trousers into socks and to apply repellant to the socks themselves.
Wednesday 3 August
This morning the children and I went on a canopy tour at the Eco Lodge, just a couple of miles from our villa. The Eco Lodge made a name for itself as one of the pioneering ecotourism centres in Costa Rica and its website suggests it has many accessible trails and a good bird list. However we found the staff there unwilling to let us use the trails without paying an extortionate fee and we felt glad we weren’t staying there. The canopy tour was great for the adrenalin rush though. The canopy was pretty quiet as it was cloudy and damp and we didn’t see any wildlife – but I would still recommend Eco Lodge for doing this quintessentially Costa Rican activity. The Lodge also scores points for supporting a small population of indigenous Moleku people who make and sell their wares (mainly artifacts painted with rainforest birds and animals) to visitors and to the various tourist shops in the area.
Arenal Hanging Bridges at the east end of Lake Arenal, near the dam, is a forest reserve made accessible for tourists by a series of suspension footbridges spanning the various valleys. We arrived here in a rainstorm in the late afternoon and when the rain subsided we set off without much hope of seeing much. In the car park were green-breasted mango, rufous-collared sparrow and yellow-faced grassquit and the forest was fairly productive with buff-rumped warblers displaying conspicuously, an obliging dull-mantled antbird, and a rufous motmot. We had good views of three troupes of howler monkeys and our first white-faced capuchin monkeys.
Thursday 4 August
An early start for the drive up to Santa Elena and Monteverde. Although not that far we had allowed three hours for the journey and we needed it. For most of the way the road was unsurfaced, just rocks and ruts. The surfaced roads in Costa Rica aren’t much better as they are riddled with potholes and in some places, the edges of roads are washed away. The Rav 4 ate up the road and despite the legendary impassability of this area we had no trouble. Driving in Costa Rica is actually pretty straightforward. True, there are potholes everywhere and true, oncoming vehicles do tend to veer in front of you to avoid potholes, but generally speaking people don’t drive fast or dangerously. The only crazy driving we saw, sadly, was from the marked ‘Turistico’ buses carrying eco-tourists on a tight schedule form one wildlife location to another. We were glad of our 4-wheel drive on several occasions and when we witnessed tropical downpours we could well understand why there are potholes and bits of road missing.
We arrived at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve somewhat stiff and shaken from the bumpy drive and enjoyed the hummingbird feeders at the reserve entrance. After a while we had fathomed out the more abundant species present: green hermit, violet sabrewing, purple-throated mountain-gem, stripe-tailed hummingbird, green-crowned brilliant, green violetear, and the Costa Rican endemic coppery-headed hummingbird. A walk in the forest produced common bush-tanagers, buffy tuftedcheeks, three-striped warblers and a black-faced solitaire.
The Santa Elena Sky Walk, which is a grander version of the Arenal Hanging Bridges, had a similar collection of hummingbirds at the feeders and also fiery-throated hummingbird. However the forest was quiet apart from a buff-fronted quail-dove waddling about on the path in front of us. The place is not really wilderness as they’ve built the highest (or longest, or both) canopy tour overhead. I must admit I prefer my rainforest without vocal accompaniment from above (Yee-hah, Woaaahhh, Cooooool), and I would probably recommend other sites for first-time visitors.
By the time we got to Monteverde Reserve we had become quite proficient with the hummingbirds, but nevertheless rejoiced in fantastic close views of the same species in the Hummingbird Gallery, along with some bananaquits – which looked clumsy and gross in comparison. Visitors serious about seeing wildlife would need to allow more time in this fantastic high altitude area because, hummingbirds apart, the wildlife is fairly elusive.
Friday 5 August 2005
Today we stayed mainly around the villa and its gardens. We took the kayaks down to the lake and paddled out to one of the islands. It rained for most of the day but the rain was warm. New species around the villa today included long-tailed hermit, green kingfisher, white-collared seedeater, black-cowled oriole and red-legged honeycreeper. Later at the base of Volcan Arenal we came across our first troupe of white-throated magpie-jays and heard distant rumbling from the Volcano.
Saturday 6 August 2005
Another early start to take a cruise down the River Tenorio from Canas. We had had booked a three hour cruise with Corobici River Tours commencing at 7.00 a.m. The early start was rewarded with close views of many boat-billed herons, bare-throated tiger-herons, wood storks, amazon and green kingfishers, and smaller numbers of yellow-crowned night heron, little blue heron, green heron, olivaceous cormorant and muscovy duck. Most people go on these boat trips for the animals rather than the birds but luckily our Costa Rican guide, Lalo, had extraordinary eyesight and knew his birds – he was able to point out and identify a black-headed trogon I could barely see with the naked eye. As well as the birds we saw green iguanas, black-tailed iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards, American crocodiles and howler monkeys.
White-faced capuchin monkey
When we booked the trip the Swiss owner told us we only needed to take sun cream, sun hats, cameras and binoculars. ‘What about rain gear?’ we asked, having grown accustomed to almost constant rain over the last couple of days. ‘You won’t need that’ he replied, ‘it never rains here in the morning. This is the driest part of Costa Rica’. And it was true, just an hour’s drive to the lower altitude found us in warm sunshine at 7.00a.m. We learned that the rice and sugar fields down here are irrigated by the lake we had come from. Hydro-electricity generated at Lake Arenal also provides much of the country’s electricity and the lake has helped to make the area an important focus for tourism.
While there we had a quick look at Las Pumas next door to Corobici River Cruises. Managed by the same owner, who is incidentally a very keen herpetologist, Las Pumas is a rescue centre for cats and at any one time has most of the six [or seven?] species that occur in the area. After recovery they release sick or injured animals back into the wild, whenever possible. Admission is free and they simply ask for a donation.
Back at Villa Encantada we found the cloud had lifted slightly – still not enough to see the volcano, but enough to liven up the garden. From the verandah I watched a chestnut-mandibled toucan working its way through the treetops towards us, followed by a keel-billed toucan and a party of six collared aracaris. Later that evening at dusk a common pauraque landed almost literally at my feet, displaying much white in its wings and tail.
Sunday 7 August
Another day in which it bucketed warm rain at us for most of the day. We had booked to go on a boat trip at dusk out on the lake to look at the Volcano and miraculously, as we boarded the boat the clouds lifted and we enjoyed great views of the lava flowing down the slope. By the lake edge there were lots of olivaceous cormorants and great egrets with a few black-necked stilts, black-bellied whistling ducks, green herons and greater yellowlegs.
Lava flow, Volcan Arenal
Tuesday 9 August
In the morning we drove to the Pacific Coast at Playa Flamingo, seeing many great-tailed grackles and of course black vultures and turkey vultures on the way. Other than the abundant vultures birds of prey were rather scarce – we saw several swallow-tailed kites around Lake Arenal and crested caracaras and ospreys here and there but not much else; the wet season probably isn’t the best time of year for them. Also on the journey we saw a flock of the large and impressive white-collared swifts.
Wednesday 10 August
At dawn I heard the now familiar sound of a howler monkey outside our villa so I was soon out checking out the neighbourhood’s wildlife. Around the villa and beach were magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, hoffman’s woodpeckers, great-tailed grackles, white-throated magpie-jays, turquoise-browed motmots, streaked-backed orioles, rufous-naped wrens, great kiskadees, ringed kingfishers, an american oystercatcher and a spotted sandpiper. High-speed hummingbirds seldom materialized into anything more but I did identify a cinnamon hummingbird.
We spent the day exploring the local area and checking out the quieter beaches using the Lonely Planet guide. Most of the beaches had some bird interest such as a spotted sandpipers or bare-throated tiger-heron. In the beach scrub and adjoining forest were white lored-gnatcatchers, stripe-headed sparrows, banded wrens and various parrots.
Thursday 11 August
A two-hour drive back inland took us to another rainforest-clad volcano: Rincon de la Vieja. In the forest we saw a splendid male slaty-tailed trogon and in surrounding scrub red-legged honeycreepers but the main interest was in the volcanic fumaroles and bubbling mud pools.
Friday 12 August
Although a beach day we saw several birds and animals on the way to Playa Real including a crested caracara, a turquoise-browed motmot and a flock of small amazon parrots – probably white-fronted. Also in the road were several large lizards.
Saturday 13 August
Today we drive north to Santa Rosa National Park, near the border with Nicaragua. Outside the ancient hacienda a fearsome-looking ctenosaur stood guard and in the forest nearby we saw white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys, and a good list of birds including brown-crested flycatcher, streaked-headed woodcreeper, grey-headed tanager, roadside hawk, crested guan and turquoise-browed motmots.
Female green iguana
Sunday 14 August
The weather pattern in this area was fairly predictable: warm sunshine all morning, becoming hot towards mid-day, with rain in the afternoon, usually heavy, often torrential. If we went to a beach got there early and left before it got too hot. This morning we noticed a strong migration of butterflies northwards across the bay of Playa Prieta and along the beach: thousands of large yellow, orange, or multi-coloured butterflies streamed through every hour. We noticed the same on other beaches.
Playa Tamarindo, south of where we were staying, is a popular resort for surfers and has some interesting wetland and forest habitat behind the beach. Large numbers of cattle egrets and black vultures fly in to roost. A quick look at the small estuary added semipalmated plover and yellow-crowned night heron to the trip list.
Monday 15 to Thursday 18 August
We spent the days exploring more of the local beaches and countryside, seeing more of the species already mentioned and adding royal tern, roseate spoonbill, white ibis grey-breasted martin, barred antshrike and lesser ground-cuckoo to the list. From Playa Hermosa I could see a feeding flock of shearwaters in the bay but too distant to identify.
Rachel and Joe were keen to try scuba-diving and we had booked a day out with [ ] a German company operating out of Playa Flamingo. Sarah and I stayed on the boat and watched magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, olivaceous cormorants and a brown booby.
On Thursday we drove back north up the Intercontinental Highway to spend one final night in Vista del Valle Plantation Inn before catching our flight back to London Gatwick via Atlanta. Fortunately we were offered the chance to change from our booked flight which involved changing at Houston with only 35 minutes allowed!
At Vista del Valle I added scrub euphonia to the log making a total of 142 species for the holiday, of which 94 were new for me. This was first and foremost a family holiday and I did not wish my obsession with birds to spoil things too much for the others. Considering this I was very pleased to have done so well and to have had a great holiday as well.
I would thoroughly recommend Costa Rica not only for enthusiastic birders but also for anyone who wants to combine birding with general interest and activities.