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A Report from

Costa Rica 2008,

John Yates

In recent years the UK tour operator First Choice have been offering package holidays with direct flights to the Central American country of Costa Rica.

We took advantage of this and booked a two week break during the school 2008 Summer holidays, which consisted of the seven day ‘Grand Tour of Costa Rica’, followed by a week at a hotel on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. We chose the Occidental Grand Papagayo at the Southern end of the Gulf Of Papagayo.

The first week involved a whistle stop tour of the Arenal area, Selve Verde and Tortuguero and included many non birding activities such as river tubing, horse-riding, zip-lining, relaxing in hot springs, cultural events and turtle watching. We had very full days and so birding opportunities were generally limited to an hour or so at the start or end of the day or birding from the coach. A few river trips were included in the tour.

The second week was much more relaxed. I had two excellent day trips out with local birding guide Carlos Jimenez from Eco Explorers ( in the Guanacaste area and we all went on a First Choice day trip to Monteverde.

Holiday itinerary

15th August 2008     Hotel Canon de la Vieja Lodge
16th August 2008     Arenal Springs Hotel
17th August 2008     Arenal Springs Hotel
18th August 2008     Arenal Springs Hotel
19th August 2008     Selve Verde
20th August 2008     Laguna Lodge
21st August 2008      Laguna Lodge
22nd August 2008     Grand Papagayo
23rd August 2008     Grand Papagayo
24th August 2008     Grand Papagayo25th August 2008     Grand Papagayo
26th August 2008     Grand Papagayo
27th August 2008     Grand Papagayo
28th August 2008     Grand Papagayo

Field Guides, DVDs & CD for Costa Rica

Garrigues R & Dean R                           Birds Of Costa Rica            
Stiles FG, AF Skutch & Gardner D           A Guide To The Birds Of Costa Rica
Kavanagh J & Leung R                          Costa Rican Wildlife pamphlet
Kavanagh J & Leung R                          Costa Rican Butterflies & Moths pamphlet
Fogden S & M & P                               Photographic Guide To Birds Of Costa Rica
Baker CP                                           Eyewitness Travel Guide - Costa Rica
Insight                                              Flexi Map Of Costa Rica
Rymer M                                            Birding Costa Rica DVDs Parts 1 and 2
Ross DL                                             Costa Rica Bird Song Sampler CD

15th August 2008

After a 10.5 hour flight from Gatwick to Costa Rica, we touched down in Liberia, to be met by our excellent First Choice tour representatives Randal and Carlos. The first of many holiday raindrops hit the coach windscreen as we met out fellow group members who had booked the seven day ‘Grand Tour of Costa Rica’, followed by a relaxing week on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

First bird of the holiday was a Turkey Vulture which was soon followed by a Great-Tailed Grackle. It only took about 30 minutes to get from the airport to our first tour hotel the Canon de la Vieja Lodge near the Rincón de la Vieja National Park. A Double-Striped Thick-Knee was seen from the coach as we left the airport. On arrival at the lodge and as the light was fading I was soon out birding. I made my way over to the football field where a Turquoise- Browed Motmot was present on the wires while Great Kiskadee, Stripe-Headed Sparrow & White-lored Gnatcatcher were also present. Other birds noted around the grounds were Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, Inca Dove, Rufous-naped Wren, White-throated Magpie-Jay, White-fronted Parrot and Orange-fronted Parakeet.

16th August 2008

There was no time for birding the following morning as we were up early for breakfast, which was followed by exhilarating river tubing down the rapids of a local river and horse riding to an attractive waterfall from the Hotel Hacienda Guachepelin. After buying the DVD of our escapades, and enjoying lunch, we set off for the Arenal region. New birds seen on route included Montezuma Oropendola, Black Vulture, White-winged Dove, Great Egret, Masked Tityra, Groove-billed Ani and my first Keel-billed Toucan.

We were to spend the next three nights at the Arenal Springs Hotel with a magnificent view of the erupting Arenal Volcano from our hotel room.

17th August 2008

I was up at daybreak and on opening the door of our room was facing flowering shrubs with its attendant Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Bananquit. Rufous-collared Sparrow hoped about on the ground while the volcano smoked in the distance. Other new birds seen in the hotel grounds included Variable Seedeater, House Wren, Long-billed Starthroat, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Social Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Clay-coloured Robin, Passerini’s Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanager, Buff-throated Saltator, Common Ground-Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove and White-lined Tanager.

After breakfast the group were taken for a boat trip on a river in the Cano Negro area. Birds seen from the boat included Mangrove Swallow, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Anhinga, Neotropical Cormorant, Northern Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Heron and Swallow-tailed Kites. We also saw a number of Basilisks, Oropendolas, a Three Toed Sloth & Green Iguanas.

In the afternoon the zip-liners were dropped off at the Los Lagos hotel. We were all kitted out with harnesses and safety equipment, taken up to the start of the zip lines by van and were just ready to go when the heavens opened with attendant thunder and lightening. Needless to say the zip-lining was abandoned for the day!! In the evening we were taken to some local hot springs. This was great way to unwind and it was nice have a long hot soak in complete darkness as we had a 20 minute power cut!!!!

18th August 2008

In addition to the birds seen yesterday, Black-cowled Oriole, Ringed Kingfisher, White-tipped Dove and Dusky-capped Flycatcher were seen on my early morning walk.

The morning was filled with a cultural tour. We visited a couple of independent farms and a local school. Visiting the farms opened up further opportunities for birding and also gave us the opportunity to learn about local cheese making and to feed and milk some local cows. We all tried some fresh milk. It was warm, lovely and frothy!! Later we were treated to the local school children performing to Costa Rican music. New birds seen during the day included Red-winged Blackbird, Golden-hooded Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-throated Euphonia and Long-billed Hermit.

As yesterday's adrenaline rush activity was cancelled, we returned in the afternoon to Los Lagos for a repeat attempt at zip-lining. Again the clouds began to gather in the distance but there was no time to worry about this as we were off down the first of the runs. While I enjoyed the event, my 9 year old son Thomas, found zip-lining at high speed very exhilarating and it was his highlight of the holiday. One zip-line was 500m long. A late evening walk around the hotel grounds added Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Black-striped Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater and Common Tody-Flycatcher to the trip list.

19th August 2008

During my final morning walk at the Arenal Springs resort I final connected with Chestnut-mandibled Toucan along with Collared Aracari and Red-billed Pigeon.

After breakfast we visited the Hanging Bridges of Arenal, which was completely birdless, apart from a Crested Guan, spotted by Thomas. We then moved on for an overnight stop at Selva Verde.

On arrival we soon found Green and Black Poison Arrow Frogs and a wonderful Armadillo. We were taken on a guided walk through the rainforest but apart from a Red-Lored Parrot and two Fasciated Tiger-Herons we didn’t connect with much else. Red Eyed Tree Frogs and Strawberry Poison Dart Frog were also seen on the walk, the former being one of the animals of the holiday. A dusk walk around the grounds revealed more Collared Aracari and a Black Cheeked Woodpecker.

20th August 2008

Birds seen prior to breakfast included two White-breasted Wood-Wrens, Buff-rumped Warbler, Green Kingfisher and Ringed Kingfisher. It is worth mentioning that Selva Verde offer complimentary bird walks at 6am and 4pm.

We were soon on our way again heading for Laguna Lodge in Tortuguero. After a long drive, with a stop at a banana plantation, we finally arrived at our departure point and set off down the river at high speed in our covered boat taxi. Birds seen on route included Roseate Spoonbill, Green Heron, Snowy Egret, Northern Jacana and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Birds present within the grounds of the hotel included Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-collared Manakin, Keel-billed Toucan, Montezuma Oropendola, Orchard Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, Barn Swallow and Green-breasted Mango. Sanderlings, Brown Pelican, American Golden- Plover and Whimbrel were present on the beach.

After dark we were privileged to see Green Turtles laying their eggs on the nearby beach. This was a personnel highlight. Prior to 2004 people were often on the beach during the egg laying season causing disturbance to the turtles but over the past 4 years a group made up the Tortuguero National Park, local hotels, the local community and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation have implemented a turtle spotter program. The Tortuguero spotters search for nesting females and the position of the turtle is then radioed back to the guides. They then bring visitors to the turtle position using a trail behind the beach.

We were taken by boat taxi from Laguna Lodge at 7.30pm (others were taken at 9.30pm) to the beach with a local guide. Here we were made to wait until we were summoned on to the beach. During this time we were informed about turtle biology. Only at a point when a turtle was actively egg laying were we allowed to approach the turtle. We sat transfixed as the turtle deposited her eggs into the nest. Although we were soon moved away, we were allowed to return as the turtle buried the eggs with sand. We were then allowed to watch as another turtle moved down the beach and into the sea. At no point were tourists allowed to interfere with these turtles. The event was well run. We returned to the hotel at about 9.30 fully satisfied that we had witnessed a special wildlife event.

21st August 2008

New birds seen prior to breakfast included a pair of Common Black-Hawk at the beach with Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow Warbler, Olive-throated Parakeet and Mealy Parrot in the hotel grounds.

We went on two boat trips (10am and 2pm) that allowed close views of Little Blue Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Green Heron. We also had close encounters with Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, White-faced Capuchins, Caimans and River Turtles. A Green-and-rufous Kingfisher flew by at high speed.


22nd – 29th August 2008

We left the lodge early and flew back to San Jose in a light aircraft. We toured the capital for about an hour and by mid afternoon we finally arrived at the Occidental Grand Papagayo on the Pacific coast where we spent the next week.

We stayed in hotel block 19 where birds seen from the ground floor balcony included Streak-backed Oriole, Crested Caracara, White-throated Magpie- Jay, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-chinned Parakeet & Orange-fronted Parakeet. Other birds seen either in the hotel grounds, on the beach or in the vicinity of the hotel included Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropical Cormorant, Eastern Meadowlark, American Oystercatcher, Semipalmated Plover, Great-tailed Grackle, Great Kiskadee, Brown Pelican, Whimbrel, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-headed Trogon, Banded Wren and Squirrel Cuckoo.

We went on a number of day trips during the week.

•         Sunday - We took a taxi trip to the local Playa Del Coco where I saw Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird from the beach and Solitary Sandpiper, Green Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-heron and Yellow Crowned Night Heron at a small river that runs into the sea on the outskirts of town. The old bridge over the river is amazing.

•         Monday - I arranged to meet Carlos Jimenez from Eco Explorers in the hotel car park at 5am. Carlos arrived promptly and heard both Pacific Screech-Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the nearby vicinity. It wasn’t long before we, myself and two other birders David and Maureen, had good dawn views of both owl species. Our day would include a visit to Heliconias Lodge in the Guanacaste Cordillera. We birded on route and made frequent stops for birds such as Roadside Hawk, Grey Hawk, Blue-and-White Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Double-striped Thick-knee, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-naped Parrot and a Harris’s Hawk. White-collared Swifts were seen overhead. On arrival at the lodge we walked for a couple of hours along the marked trail. Notable birds seen on route included Orange-bellied Trogon, Tody Motmot, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Rufous Piha, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue-black Grosbeak and Song Wren. After lunch we spent an hour at a farm where we saw Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Barred Antshrike and Yellow Tyrannulet amongst other previously seen birds. The heavens then opened and birding was abandoned for the day.


Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Boat-billed Heron by David Arkley

•         Wednesday - We booked ourselves onto a First Choice trip to Monteverde. A Laughing Falcon was seen on route. On arrival, and prior to lunch, we had a quick walk in the rainforest near to Santa Elena where we saw a female Resplendent Quetzal, Brown Jay and Golden-browed Chorophonia. We then moved onto the Hanging Bridges where we paused for a look at the Hummingbird Garden. Hummingbirds seen were Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violet-ear, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Coppery-headed Emerald and Purple-throated Mountain-gem. Birds seen from the Hanging Bridges included Black Guan, Sooty Robin, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush-Tanager and Silver-throated Tanager. There had been a slow drizzle from mid afternoon and our return to the Grand Papagayo was severely delayed, as the coach was unable to ascend the muddy road a few miles into our journey. Despite valiant attempts to push and pull the coach up the small hill, the attempts were soon abandoned and a much longer route was found back to the lowlands.


•         Thursday – Myself, David and Maureen again hired Carlos as a guide and spent the day in the Pale Verde area. Notable birds seen on route included Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Muscovy Duck, Purple Gallinule, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-black Grassquit, Spot-breasted Oriole, Baltimore Oriole (Fem) and the introduced Tricoloured Munia. A boat trip on the Tempisque River revealed Wood Stork and Common Paraque. Both Black Crowned Night and Boat Billed Herons were noted, along with more common Herons and Egrets.

In summary, I thoroughly recommend Costa Rica as an eco-holiday destination. We all enjoyed the First Choice Grand Tour very much and would recommend it as a way of seeing what Costa Rica has to offer. Although the numbers of bird species seen in the first week was not as high as I was expecting, the second week with Carlos as guide improved things tremendously. The forests are hard work from a birding point of view and I can not stress enough the importance of having a competent guide in such habitats, who not only knows the best areas to visit but who recognises the bird calls. Enjoy the easy access to this beautiful country from the UK while it lasts.

John, Jennifer and Thomas Yates

Complete bird list


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