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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
DIY Birding (and more) in Costa Rica 2003, February 14th - March 7th 2003,
Chris Cameron + Julie Dawson
For CC Costa Rica had been a dream destination for many years. After many trips to Southern Europe, Turkey and North Africa, in which birdwatching has featured strongly, this was the first trip for both of us outside the Western Palearctic area. We considered using a professional birding tour company, as we were fortunate enough to have a reasonable and flexible budget, but decided that we might both be essentially anti-social and so the idea of spending such a long period in the company of other birders could be too much. We have nothing against organised tours and know many people who have had excellent holidays of this nature, and we're sure that had we had constant access to professional guides, we would have seen more species than we did, however, we wanted to do it ourselves. There seem to be limited resources covering DIY holidays to Costa Rica from a Northern European perspective, so hopefully this will be of some help to anybody considering something similar.
Our budget, from UK airport hotel to UK airport hotel was £6200. We actually spent about 90% of this. However we stayed in some good quality accommodation throughout the holiday and had 13 days car hire with full insurance cover and two internal flights. You could do it for much less. We saw a great deal of accommodation in Costa Rica in the $20 - $30 (prices are usually in US dollars, per room, often with breakfast) range and lots of the establishments looked quite nice.
Major expenditure was as follows:
We decided to book some of our accommodation in advance, having identified a number of locations we wanted to visit from other trip reports, guide books etc. but also decided to leave some time towards the end of the holiday unplanned. We also decided to visit Tortuguero and Delfin Amor (about which more later) back to back, early in the holiday, as both places were roadless, therefore meaning that we had been in Costa Rica for 9 nights before we needed a car.
We used a travel agent in San Jose called Selva Mar to book several items for us, as they were recommended by Delfin Amor (I think Delfin Amor now offer this service themselves) and found them quite helpful. They booked us a package to Tortuguero, including transfer from San Jose, flights from Tortuguero to Bahia Drake and arranged our car rental, including pick up. They also overcharged us for one item and promptly refunded this when it was pointed out.
Everything else we arranged for ourselves, mostly over the internet. The main inconvenience was the requirement of many places to have a faxed signature with credit card details for pre-payment or deposit/security. This may be a legal requirement in Costa Rica.
Some useful tips
We took a pocket dictation machine with us for field notes, knowing that we would see a lot of birds whose families would be unfamiliar and which we might have difficulty identifying. This turned out to be much more useful than expected and I would guess that our evening sessions replaying our recordings and checking what we'd seen against the field guide resulted in us successfully identifying some 30 to 50 species that we might otherwise have missed. In some areas, particularly Tortuguero and Bahia, the climate and humidity are rather hard on paper. Of course it's difficult to do field sketches on magnetic media.
If you're planning a pelagic trip, take the highest spf sun cream you can find. The staff at Delfin Amor use factor 35, and they're out in it all the time. High factor protection is also a good idea at altitude.
Take some insect repellent - those containing Deet are reckoned to be the most effective, but don't worry unduly about bugs. We didn't use the repellent very often, and were amazed to find that it was unnecessary in places like Delfin Amor, where we sat out each night for several hours, and Corcovado.
Telescopes - we took one each and with the tripod for the camera as well, this meant a fair bit of weight to carry around. We used the 'scopes around the soccer field at Delfin Amor, at Tarcoles, both for the crocodiles and around the river mouth/Tarcol Lodge area and at Palo Verde. We also used them to observe the lava flows at El Arenal, but apart from that, they were dead-weight most of the time. If we were to repeat the trip, then probably one 'scope with tripod would be enough.
Left Heathrow at about 06:30 - arrived San Jose about 22 hours later (just after dark). Easily found our taxi (arranged by the hotel) and drove for about 90 minutes to the Orosi Lodge, near Paraiso. The trip can be much shorter than this but we hit the Friday evening rush hour, which was worsened by lots of traffic going into the city for St. Valentines night.
We chose Orosi Lodge because it was not too far from the airport, but well away from the urban sprawl of the Valle Central. We would definitely recommend this to other birdwatchers as an alternative to a San Jose or airport hotel, for the simple reason that there are birds here. On top of that, the owners are very pleasant and the cabinas extremely attractive. Despite the long journey, we had enough energy to get a meal in Orosi village and on the walk back heard a bird calling from inside the little thermal resort which adjoins the lodge, which we decided might be a nightjar species, probably Common Pauraque.
Orosi Lodge - Irazu Volcano - Tapanti National Park
Waking up just before dawn here was a magical experience which perhaps can only happen once to a birdwatcher. CC was probably woken by the very first bird calls, but a few minutes later there were large numbers of birds from a number of different species making a lot of noise - and none of them sounded anything like birds we had heard before. Daylight arrived quickly and CC stepped out onto the balcony. Despite an honourable intention of being lazy and sleeping 'til lunch time, JD soon joined him and we identified our first bird in a new continent - appropriately Costa Rica's national bird, Clay-coloured Robin. We then spent a long time identifying Great Kiskadee, a pair of which were visiting the Lodge's Garden and our third bird was one of our target species, a stunning male Snowy Cotinga, in the trees in the thermal resort.
After a pleasant breakfast we decided to take a walk in the village, noting the similarity of some of the local hirundines to Sand Martins and spotting a few more common species as we walked. On the main street we bumped into an American ornithology student who was studying in the area. He confirmed our Common Pauraque and the likelihood of Snowy Cotinga, and spotted a flock of White-crowned Parrots and then took us back up the street to the junction with the road to Orosi Lodge and showed us a Green-breasted Mango on a nest, on the telegraph wires. We had walked right past it.
Arranging a hire car for a day in Orosi had proved difficult so the Lodge arranged a taxi for us, as we wanted to visit the Irazu Volcano, Costa Rica's highest. Carlos arrived with his pick-up at 9 a.m. and took us around for the rest of the day, probably for less than the cost of a day's car rental.
On the drive up the volcano, as we passed through the Cartago/Paraiso area we saw our 19th species (ignoring a few that got away) and the first one that was even vaguely familiar - a Black-shouldered Kite.
The summit of the volcano is over 3400 metres above sea level and the road goes right to the top. CC was surprised to experience some symptoms of altitude sickness (slight shortness of breath, mild headache), despite having spent many hours in the gym concentrating on cardio-vascular equipment in the preceding months. 20-a-day JD was unaffected. We had hoped to find Volcano Junco here but were disappointed. However, Volcano Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird and Yellow-billed Cacique were quite easy to find (mostly in the vegetation at the back of the area overlooking the crater lake), although Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager took some work before we were certain of its identification.
NB - the air at this altitude is very clear. Use high-factor sun block and wear a hat. CC didn't and got sunburn on the top of his head.
After the drive down we invited Carlos to have lunch with us. He understood that we were interested in birds and took us through Orosi, on the road to Tapanti National Park, to the Albergue de Montana, situated in a delightful riverside spot. On Carlos' recommendation we ordered the trout (delicious) and then noticed that the restaurant had a bird table. Although it was frequently deserted, the table had some excellent visitors, with Blue Grey, Red-rumped and Silver-throated Tanagers and a Buff-throated Saltator all present together, and a Chestnut-headed Oropendula visiting several times.
With only a couple of hours of daylight left, Carlos then drove us to the Tapanti National Park and agreed to wait until we returned. We followed the main track and then the Sendero Oropendula. Although there weren't many birds about, what we did identify was good quality, with a Black Guan, a Violet-headed Hummingbird, a probable female Black-throated Green Warbler and best of all a Scaled Antpitta. By the time we got back to the car it had been dark for 20 minutes and we had been accompanied by hundreds of fireflies. On the drive back to Orosi Lodge, Carlos caught two nightjars on the road, in his headlights. One was clearly Common Pauraque but the second appeared smaller and showed no obvious white on wings or tail when flushed. It remains a mystery.
Orosi to Tortuguero.
It's worth mentioning at this point that much of rural Costa Rica lives by the sun. At this latitude, sunrise is usually around 6 a.m. and sunset 6 p.m. People get up early and most activity finishes around sunset. People eat and then go to bed. The Valle Central and parts of the Caribbean coast seem more inclined to night life, as do the self-contained tourist resorts. This lifestyle will probably suit most visiting birdwatchers because it means that most of the available daylight can be utilised. So, we had an early start, being picked up by taxi at Orosi Lodge at 5 a.m., stopping in Cartago for a cash machine (all non-functional!) and then going to the Hampton Inn near the airport to get our coach to Tortuguero.
The coach belonged to the Laguna Lodge, where we were staying and we were met by Daniel Hernandez who was to be our guide for the duration of our stay in Tortuguero. Typically for lodges like Laguna, a package including meals and tours is bookable. Our view is that this represents good value for money, especially if you get a guide as proficient as Daniel.
The coach drove out of San Jose, through the Braullio Carillo National Park and across the Caribbean lowlands before we transferred to a boat at the village of Cano Negro. We saw a few birds from the coach, including Grey-breasted Swallow at Siquerres, were we stopped to pick up some more Laguna Lodge clients, and Pink-Billed Seedfinch near the banana plantation 'town' of Carmen Uno. A couple of odd looking grackles were almost certainly Nicaraguan Grackles and Daniel spotted a Laughing Falcon in a tree. New species were seen quite quickly from the boat, with the highlight being a Common Potoo. In addition to the birds we saw Three-toed Sloth, Spider Monkey, Howler Monkeys, Long-nosed Bats, Emerald Basilisk, Green Vine Snake and several Blue Morpho butterflies.
Laguna Lodge is attractively situated on the narrow strip of land between the Tortuguero 'canal' and the sea. It is well laid out, with plenty of large trees and open areas, including an open air butterfly garden.
There is a good patch of woodland to the north of the lodge's grounds and the area is well worth a few hours attention. Highlights included several tanagers, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Long-tailed Woodcreeper and Yellow Warbler. Common birds included several heron species, with close up views of Yellow-crowned Night Heron and lots of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds overhead. The beach is worth checking for waders - Sanderlings and a Grey Plover made us feel at home, although the coconuts on the sand didn't remind us of Norfolk!
In the evening, walking around the grounds we found a Crab-eating Racoon and a large Bullfrog, near the swimming pool.
Tortuguero River and National Park
After a pleasant early breakfast we were straight into the boat and out on the river. Good birds appeared almost immediately, with Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers. A pair of toucans in a riverside tree turned out to be one of each - both Keel-billed and Chestnut Mandibled. Daniel picked out a distant Summer Tanager, and then found a Great Potoo. Mealy Parrot, Cinnamon Woodpecker, White-necked Puffbird and Grey-necked Wood Rail were all identified and good close up views of a couple of Bare-necked Tiger Herons were enjoyed. A Tropical River Otter catching shrimps from a raft of Water Hyacinths didn't notice our approach.
Back to the Lodge for lunch and a stroll round the gardens, were we found an immature Black Hawk Eagle right outside our cabina and several Collared Aracaris nearby, and then we were out in the boat again, exploring a different part of the park. More kingfishers (4 species on the day) were found and Daniel located Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Plain Brown Woodcreeper. JD's sharp eyes noticed some movement on the forest floor which turned out to be a pair of Great Curassows and a Tayra (a large member of the weasel family) was surprised as we drifted down a quiet backwater.
We returned to the Lodge for a 'rest' and found White-collared Manakins and Common Tody Flycatchers in the butterfly garden, whilst the Black Hawk Eagle by our cabina had been supplanted by a stunning male American Redstart.
Also seen during the day were Green Iguana, Brown Vine Snake and Howler Monkey (all Laguna Lodge), Three-toed Sloth, Spectacled Caiman and Black River Turtle. On the second boat trip, whilst manoeuvring to get a better view of a juvenile Anhinga we came face to face with a troop of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys, one of which was so surprised to see us it almost fell into the boat.
Tortuguero - Bahia Drake (Delfin Amor)
Another early start saw us arrive at the Tortuguero airstrip at about 7 a.m. for the short flight to San Jose, before transferring to a plane to Bahia Drake. Internal flights are quite inexpensive and also rather good fun. The airstrip at Tortuguero is just that. There are no buildings and the only 'infrastructure' appeared to be three traffic cones. The flights allowed some excellent views, although the hour wait at the San Jose airport (not the international airport at Alajuela) was rather dull. We were also running very low on cash, not having been near a bank with a working cash machine for days. Needless to say there are no banks or exchange facilities at the airport. Fortunately, credit cards are accepted widely.
When we arrived at Bahia Drake airfield a pair of Scarlet Macaws flew past as we stepped down from the 'plane and we realised that our plans had come unstuck. Although this was much the closest airfield to Delfin Amor, we had wanted to arrive via Palmar Sur, to take the boat transfer from Sierpe. We had been booked on a flight to Bahia Drake in error. There were a couple of vehicles waiting to pick up the half-dozen or so tourists on the flight and luckily one of the tourists was on his way to Delfin Amor, so we hitched a ride with them.
There are no roads to Delfin Amor, so we were dropped off at the small village of Agujitas were we had to take off our boots and socks to get into the Delfin Amor boat.
What to say about Delfin Amor? Firstly, we chose it because we were impressed by their website and the evidence of the conservation work that they are doing - they are working towards having an international marine reserve set up in the area. They cannot be described as inexpensive, but they did offer the chance to get quite a long way off-shore, which in turn might mean seeing birds that would not be encountered inshore, and they project a philosophy which seems geared to preserving the ecology and the beauty of the area.
That said, birds are by no means the number one priority at Delfin Amor. Pride of place goes to cetaceans and it is whales and dolphins that most people come for. This is where things get a little tricky. CC and JD do not describe themselves as 'spiritual' - indeed we might admit to having the coldest, darkest souls imaginable. Dolphins attract people who are enthused by the spiritual links between man and dolphin and who feel 'connected' in some way. Swimming with dolphins is their reason for being here, but they get something out of this experience which is beyond our comprehension. This has a definite downside, because it seems to create something of an elite at Delfin Amor (you're either 'in', or you're not) and has some rather interesting side effects. To our pragmatic or cynical minds we saw a big discrepancy between what was being preached and what was practised, particularly by some of the more spiritual guests, who would happily promote sharing, oneness, respect and similar concepts but forgot all of that as soon as the first dolphin was spotted, when they didn't mind who they stood on or in front of to ensure that they got a good view.
As we've said, spirituality is not our thing, so our opinions are probably coloured by this, and it would be unfair to suggest that we had anything other than a marvellous time at Delfin Amor. What they are doing is worthy of the support of anyone who has an interest in wildlife. The lodge has a beautiful setting and although quite costly represents real value for money. The cabinas are comfortable and surrounded by forest. The food is superb - vegetarian (including lots of fresh fish) and a trip there should be unforgettable. If you can leave your cynicism at home, you might become converted, and of course not all the other guests will have psychic connections to Flipper. More about this later.
After installing ourselves in our cabina and enjoying lunch, we took a stroll south along the 'main road' - a track suitable for people and horses which follows the coast. After about 10 minutes we arrived at a school with a soccer pitch, were we spent a few hours over the next few days, as it seemed to be rather productive for birds. Hoffman's Woodpeckers were always present, in a couple of palm trees near the northern goal posts. Yellow-headed Caracara was also here pretty much all the time. Other species identified in the area included Red-legged Honeycreeper, Golden Olive Woodpecker, Black-hooded Antshrike, Smoky Brown Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Yellow-throated Vireo and Black-and-White Warbler, some of which were in deeper cover, along the path either side of the school.
Pelagic trip, Bahia Drake
After breakfast we boarded the boat for a full day on the Pacific. We headed rapidly out to sea and saw very few birds initially. There were pelicans and frigatebirds inshore and a few Laughing Gulls, with the occasional Brown Booby (this turned out to be the most frequently seen species on the two trips we enjoyed). The first item of note was an Olive Ridley Turtle which seem unperturbed by the boat. Roy, the Delfin Amor biologist confidently identified a passing gull as Bonaparte's. If the Costa Rican birders 'bible' is to believed, this may have been an exceptional record, but the book is well in need of a major revision and the species status may have changed. Our best observation was that the bird somehow 'felt different' to the Laughing Gulls we had seen, causing us to look more carefully at it as it passed.
Our next encounter was with a small group of Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, which gave us the chance to find out if Delfin Amor's claims to put the animals' interests foremost were genuine. After watching the dolphins for a short while, Roy's assessment was that they were resting and should not be disturbed, so we moved on.
The boat is a fast one, so observing birds whilst in motion was difficult, however that was not much of a problem because for quite a long time there were no birds to see. However after we lost sight of land we started to see a few shearwaters and probable skuas, but we were moving too quickly to identify them.
Our next stop was for a large (c500) pod of Common Dolphins. We watched them for a while but they showed no interest in the boat and soon moved off. Shortly afterwards we crossed the path of a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins. These came close to the boat and showed no signs of moving off so Roy agreed that it would be a good time to get in the water. We'd bought snorkels and masks for our stay on Bahia Drake, so now seemed a good time to use them.
It is undeniable that swimming in the same water as wild dolphins is exciting. The Pacific at 8 degrees north is warm and crystal clear. The pod again numbered about 500 and it seemed as though there were cetaceans all around, in family groups of up to a dozen or so, with adults, juveniles and very small infants. With one's head underwater it was possible to hear the clicks and squeaks that these animals use to communicate with each other.
After some 20 minutes the Bottlenoses moved off slowly and we got back into the boat and followed them. Some dolphins rode the bow wave, although we were not travelling quickly and Roy decided that we could try to get in the water again. Just as we were getting in, the pilot shouted "Pilotas" and we noticed some smaller, black fins in the water ahead.
Although separated by about 50 metres of water, JD and CC had very similar experiences in the next few minutes.
After moving away from the boat we looked around to see where the nearest fins were - according to the Delfin Amor staff, in a group of dolphins about 10% will be on the surface at any time - some of the black fins were a short distance away so using our face masks we looked under the water to be confronted by a wall of black - a large group of Pilot Whales swimming perhaps 20 abreast and maybe 3 or four layers deep, heading straight for us. As these mammals weigh up to four tons and might reach 6 metres in length, and were swimming so that they were touching each other with few gaps between them, this was quite a daunting sight, but we couldn't get out of their way so just remained still in the water and the whales parted to avoid us.
Behind this first group were more Pilot Whales - the pod was estimated as being about 1000 strong - and they were travelling slowly so for the next 30 minutes or so we were able to swim alongside or behind them at very close quarters. An exhilarating experience.
On returning to the boat, we followed the Pilotas for some distance, at low speeds so as not to disturb them, and during this time we were able to get a better look at the birds which had appeared in the area. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters kept well away from the boat and took some work to identify, and some darker shearwaters were even harder to get a good look at, but Pomarine Skuas were quite numerous and much easier to be certain of. There where quite a few terns about and we were happy that some of them were Black Terns but were unable to identify the paler species - possibly Sandwich Terns - that we saw. Pride of place, however, went to two separate birds which were reminiscent of the Great Skuas we get off the coast of Europe. Fortunately we had been looking at the field guide to check on the Pomarine Skuas and had looked at South Polar Skua at the same time, because this is what these birds were, with pale heads and no extended tail feathers.
Apart from the above, a couple of Sailfish leaping high out of the ocean were the only other sightings of note.
Delfin Amor south to Rio Clara
We had no tours booked this day and were therefore at liberty to explore. After watching the morning vulture exodus (hundreds of Black Vultures roost in and around the grounds of Delfin Amor) and identifying a Long-tailed Hermit from the breakfast table, we set off to walk south towards Rio Clara. The short walk took over two hours because of frequent stops for birdwatching.
Although birds were not particularly numerous, the variety was good, with pigeons and doves, Whimbrel and Lesser Yellowlegs, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Smoky-brown and Lineated Woodpecker, warblers, honeycreepers and others. Scarlet Macaws were seen at close quarters in several places. After wading across the Rio Clara, we found a man with canoes for hire, so we took a paddle up the river, which has a very gentle current and after only a short distance has the feel of being completely remote and isolated, with nothing but steep, forested hillsides and the river itself. Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers were seen frequently and both Northern Waterthrush and Buff-rumped Warbler were common, although the latter species proved difficult to match to the field guide description, possibly because the buff on the rump appeared bright yellow in the strong sunlight and it was only when we saw more of these birds in the Corcovado National Park the following day that we were certain of what we'd seen.
After an enjoyable and cooling swim in the river, CC managed to break the little toe on his right foot, whilst climbing on the rocks. Painful but fortunately trivial enough to not create too many problems later in the holiday.
Corcovado National Park
A boat trip south saw us arrive at the National Park quite early with our guide for our day, Lucia, also known as 'the bat lady' because of her ongoing studies. Sadly we didn't see huge numbers of birds on our two walks in the park, although there were several good species (Black-throated Trogon, Rufous Piha, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper) but the park itself is beautiful and there is plenty of other wildlife. We saw a couple of Agoutis and the three large species of monkey and then followed a Coati which had been running along the beach, into the forest, where we found a large family group, lounging about and playing in the trees. Talamancan Dart Frogs and several types of lizards added to the interest.
We had a break for a swim in a river, whilst a fresh coconut was prepared for a quick snack (Lucia is a an expert on all things wild and edible in the forest), overlooked by a Bare-throated Tiger Heron.
In the afternoon we followed a stream inland and had another refreshing swim in a pool beneath a small cataract. The boat trip to and from the park took us close to some rocky islets where Magnificent Frigatebirds were resting.
Pelagic Trip, Bahia Drake
Our second trip out to sea was a completely different experience to the first. The weather had changed, with the clear blue skies and calm seas being replaced by overcast conditions and a grey, choppy ocean. None of the terns and skuas (apart from a single Pomarine) that we'd seen on the previous trip were present, but as on the first day the first cetaceans we saw was a small group of Spotted Dolphins. After an hour or so when the main items of interest were the large numbers of flying fish, which were reminiscent of flocks of small waders flying over the waves, CC sighted a large flock of birds a couple of miles away. These appeared to be fishing, so we headed towards them. As we got closer we could see that the water was boiling with activity. The birds, a pod of Spinner Dolphins and a large number of Yellowfin Tuna had found a shoal of 'sardines'. For the next few hours we were in the company of hundreds of dolphins and fish (the tuna are huge and frequently jump 10 feet clear of the water) including the occasional sailfish and marlin, and lots of birds. The Spinners are so called because they twist around when they leap out of the water and they were living up to their name. The boobies, like gannets, dive with wings folded in pursuit of prey, the shearwaters are less dramatic but came within feet of the boat if it was over the sardine shoal, allowing us to confirm that the darker species we'd seen on the earlier trip were, as we'd suspected, Sooty Shearwaters. Mixed in with the Brown Boobies were occasional adult and juvenile Red-footed Boobies.
On return to land we took a short walk north from Delfin Amor, where a troop of White-faced Capuchins were threatening havoc around the kitchen, and found a couple of Plain Xenops and Orange-billed Sparrows.
Incidentally, we were told by a knowledgeable French guest at Delfin Amor that Blue-footed Boobies had been seen on the trip to Cano Island the day before and that staff/helpers at Delfin Amor claimed that Black-capped Petrels were frequently seen on pelagics. Just about everyone staying there also saw Humpback Whales during our stay, but we were unlucky.
So do we recommend this place or not. Quite simply, yes. They deserve our cash if it helps them to realise their aim of the creation of a marine conservation area. You might have to suspend your cynicism a little, or bite your lip, if you don't share the spirituality of some of your companions, but you might find the experience rewarding.
And the interaction of dolphins and man - we didn't really see any, which was contrary to the claims of some of the people we were with. Our view is that you will get more from a dog, or indeed a baby three-toed sloth than from a cetacean. We felt that their reactions to us fell into one of three categories - complete disinterest, mild but short lived curiosity and possibly dislike - some species departing very quickly. A few wanted to use the boat's bow wave as a playground and that was the limit of interaction that we observed. Plenty of people will disagree with us and our observation is limited two day trips and who knows, in a few years time a dolphin might just tell everyone how wrong we are.
Delfin Amor to Punta Leona
We left Delfin Amor in the morning and took a boat over the sea and then up river to Sierpe, where we were to pick up our hire car. This all went very smoothly and the hire company that Selva Mar had made the arrangements with had a representative ready to meet us. The river trip was quite fast, but we added White Ibis to our list. However there were plenty of birds around Sierpe, which had a rather rakish charm. We identified Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift but didn't have time to study several other hirundine species that were around, as we had offered a ride to one of the Delfin Amor guests who was leaving that day.
We drove the coast road to our next stop, Punta Leona near the Carara National Park. The road is good in places, poor in others, although no problem for a high wheel-base vehicle, and passes through some pretty countryside.
Crested Caracaras where quite easy to see, with several observed from the car. Just north of Quepos a small pool/flooded area had a variety of water birds including a single Roseate Spoonbill and a few Blue-winged Teal. Scaled Pigeon was also seen in this area.
We checked in at the Punta Leona Resort, which was considerably different to our last stop. Upon check-in we were given charming pink bracelets to wear, to allow the security 'team' to establish our right to be there. The resort is very much the North American idea of a self-contained unit and it is easy to be critical, but the rooms are comfortable and well appointed and if the resort's claims for itself are to believed there seems to be a commitment to conserving the environment in which it the hotel is located - although presumably some of it suffered when the place was built.
With only a couple of hours of daylight left we took the short drive to Tarcoles Bridge, famous for its American Crocodiles. There were about 25-30 in the area, most of them an impressive 4-6 metres long.
Birds flying down-river looked like MotMots, presumably going to roost, but despite there being large numbers of them we couldn't seem to get a decent view of any.
Driving back to Punta Leona, along the long track from the main security gate we caught a nightjar species in the headlights. When flushed this bird flew down the road in front of us for a while. It showed little or no white in the wings and only a small amount in the tail and wasn't at all like the Common Pauraque we'd seen previously. Whip-poor-will seems the most likely candidate, but this is described as a "casual to very rare" winter visitor in the field guide.
Walking to the bar later on we crossed the path of a pair of racoons which were cautious but not unduly concerned by our proximity.
Carara National Park and Tarcoles
We started off with a short walk around the grounds near to our apartment in Punta Leona. There were plenty of birds around and we had fun identifying Rufous-naped Wren, Streaked Flycatcher, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Northern (Baltimore) Oriole and Rose-Fronted Becard. A hummingbird was almost certainly Red-footed Plumeleteer, although this does not appear on the resort's bird list and was out of range as per Stiles and Skutch.
A quick visit to the Tarcoles bridge (closest parking to the Mangrove Lagoon Trail) produced Orchard Oriole and an Osprey, then we walked along the road to the trail, having paid for entry to the park at the main office.
The Mangrove Lagoon trail (formerly called La Vigilancia) starts about a ½ mile south of the bridge. Just inside the entrance to the trail, on the left, was an area where a fallen tree had produced a small clearing, which was becoming overgrown. This small area held a large number of birds, including Black-tailed Flycatcher, Black-striped Woodcreeper and Prothonatory Warbler. A Violet Sabrewing was highly visible. Stiles & Skutch describe this as a bird of higher altitudes, sometimes descending to 1300 feet, but the reserve is probably only a few feet above sea-level. Interestingly the bird list at Punta Leona, at a similar altitude, also includes this species.
Lineated Woodpeckers were using a hole in a dead tree near the start of the first real clearing and White-shouldered Tanagers and Scarlet Macaws were seen along with Ctenosaurs (a large lizard) and Coatis.
The temperature rose significantly during the morning and we turned back before reaching the end of the trail. We had foolishly taken only a litre of water and we were beginning to feel rather dehydrated by the time we got back to the car.
The afternoon saw us stopping for a cold drink in the village of Tarcoles before spending some time around the river estuary. White-throated Magpie Jay and Willett were soon added to our list and a passing birdwatcher pointed out a Pacific Screech Owl in a tree in the grounds of the building opposite the Tarcol Lodge. We picked up our scopes and joined another birder who was studying the wetland and mud visible from the same area. A variety of waders and herons were seen along with huge numbers of Brown Pelicans (over 1000) and a few raptors. The birder, who was from Finland, had seen several Mississippi Kites and a flock of Black Skimmers. We were quite keen to see the latter, which he thought might have landed around the bend in the river, downstream, so we found our way down to the beach, back through the village, and tried to get a view of them. We didn't find the but did get some good close-ups of Willett along the shore and watched an Osprey fishing (successfully) in the ocean.
Punta Leona - Palo Verde
We wanted to spend some time on the Palo Verde reserve in the drier north-western part of Costa Rica. The best way to do this seemed to be to stay at the OTS station on the reserve itself. We had been able to reserve beds over the internet (they are available for visitors if not already booked for researchers) with 3 meals per day and one half-day guided tour for $50 per night each. Accommodation is spartan but clean, with bunk beds and shared cold showers, and the food is excellent, served communally just after dark. There is very little alternative accommodation in the area, so this would seem to be the best option for a visit.
We had found out about a reliable site for roosting Black and White Owls in Orotina, which was a small detour en route and also decided to visit the shrimp ponds at Chomes. For the owls, if approaching Orotina from the south, turn left when you see the metal tracks which cross the road and find the town park. In the centre of the park is a bandstand and the owls were in one of the two largest trees in the park, about 20 feet up. We were pleased to find a two-toed sloth in the other large tree. If you can't find them, then ask around - apparently the man who runs the kiosk across the road is always pleased to point them out.
Chomes is down a side road off the Inter-Americana. The road is in poor condition and it is quite a slow drive. We arrived there at midday and the sun was intensely strong, to the extent that we feared burning if we stayed out in it for any length of time. We decided not to explore this area, which looked to have potential. It would be more appropriate to an early morning or late afternoon visit.
The road to Palo Verde from Bagaces leaves the south side of the village. There is a reasonable sign for the reserve and a kiosk on the corner. The road is mostly a rough track but it is not too difficult to drive, and there are good birds to be seen. Three kilometres from Bagaces we were pleased to find an American Kestrel in a tree set back from the road, and we noted several White-throated Magpie Jays. By the school (Escuela Falconia) we found a Red-winged Blackbird and at about 14 kilometres from the junction we found both Orange-fronted Parakeet and White-fronted Parrot.
We arrived at Palo Verde just before sunset which gave us time to admire the thousands of Black-bellied Whistling ducks and several Limpkins (although we didn't identify the latter until the following day, having assumed initially that they were juvenile ibises).
As dark descended we sat outside the dining room watching a dozen or so Howler Monkeys settling down for the night and the bats which were just waking up.
The Howler Monkeys awoke just before us. No alarm clock is necessary when Howler Monkeys are waking up 20 yards from your bedroom and they even drowned out the calls of the Whistling Ducks which had been active all night.
One of Palo Verde's claims to fame is its population of the endangered Jabiru and we hoped to see some on our morning guided walk. We followed the Guayacan trail through the forest and quickly found a Collared Forest Falcon - a quite spectacular bird. Further on a group of at least 5 hummingbirds were feeding in a tree top. Both genders were present and everything about them said Magnificent Hummingbird, except their location at less than 100 metres asl. Magnificent Hummingbird is a species of the highlands. We saw several more examples of this species in more suitable habitat later in the holiday and were struck by their similarity to these birds, however correspondence with a US hummingbird expert has led us to believe that we were actually seeing Scaly Breasted Hummingbirds.
Our guide wanted to show us Jabiru in a spot where he'd seen the first thing in the morning, but they had moved on, but a scan over the extensive marsh produced lots of interesting birds in huge numbers, including three ibis species and lots of Roseate Spoonbills. In fact Palo Verde held the largest concentration of birds that we saw in the whole country.
In the late morning, by which time the temperature was rising sharply, we took a drive along some of the reserve's trails, finding our way to the Rio Tempisque. Bird activity was minimal so we retreated to the relative cool of the shaded frontage of the reserve office, where we sat for a couple of hours drinking "Tropical Mora" (blackberry) juice and watching a group of White-faced Capuchins.
In the late afternoon, as the intensity of the sun reduced, birds started to appear again and we spent some time watching the tree in front of the office, which attracted Streak-backed Oriole, White-fronted Magpie Jay, Mangrove Cuckoo and Turquoise-browed Motmot. This latter bird posed obligingly for photographs.
Our guide in the morning had recommended a spot for Muscovy Duck, another of our target species but had warned that we wouldn't see the until after 4 p.m. On the way to this location we were pleased to see a Gray Hawk sitting in a tree a few yards back from the trail. The ducks themselves were easy to see, as they were returning to roosting sites in trees in a marshy area.
NOTE - as this is a research station, it has no formal facilities, so if you plan to enjoy a night-cap or two, then take your own beer, wine or spirits. You'll almost certainly find someone to share them with. Soft drinks and water are available.
Palo Verde to Arenal Lodge
An early morning stroll around the reserve centre added Yellow-naped Parrot, Rufous and White Wren, Bronzy Hermit and Ferruginous Pygmy Owl to our list and after breakfast we set off for El Arenal. This is a long but pleasant drive, although the road along the north side of Lago de Arenal is in poor condition.
On the road to Bagaces we found a roadside Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, another target species and then we drove through to Lago de Arenal were we stopped to watch a gorgeous American Swallow-tailed Kite - yet another target. At this point there were several small birds in dense roadside foliage. Yellow-tailed Oriole was easy to identify along with Lineated Woodpecker and several common tanagers. A small vireo like bird with a very distinct white eye ring and no white wing bars defeated us. There was nothing in the book like it, and we were flipping through the vireos, warblers and flycatchers whilst watching it. We were about to give up on it (in truth we had given up on a number of vireos and flycatchers over the preceding few days) when we glanced at the final plate of "Hypothetical Species and Recent Editions" in Stiles and Skutch. At the top of the page was a bird which looked exactly like the bird we were looking at - Nashville Warbler. The trouble is that up to 1989 there had only been two records of this species in Costa Rica and in many years of birdwatching the nearest that either of us has found to a rarity was a Rough-legged Buzzard in Norfolk. Nonetheless the bird gave every appearance of being Nashville Warbler at the time and the field notes we had taken before we suspected what it was supported this.
Further along the lake road we recorded our 200th species, White-collared Seedeater.
We missed the turn-off for Arenal Lodge, which is just to the west of the dam and stopped at the eastern end of the dam, where we watched another pair of Yellow-tailed Orioles. We then drove the 20 or so minutes to La Fortuna where we had an inexcusably large lunch in Luigi's Pizza Restaurant.
We decided to check in at the hotel, which meant driving back to the dam. The lodge is situated on a terrace well above the lake with an uninterrupted view of El Arenal Volcano. Access is along an extremely steep but well made 2.5 kilometre track. As we had been roughing it at Palo Verde we had reserved the Matrimonial Suite at the lodge. This was actually a large bungalow with an enormous bed, a hot tub and a large picture window looking straight out to the volcano over a small pond. Not cheap but very comfortable and really quite good value for money.
We returned to La Fortuna in the afternoon for a bit of shopping, as this was really the first proper settlement we had seen since Orosi (ignoring 30 minutes in Orotina and a few places passed through on the road). In the late afternoon we ended up on a road next to the river that flows past the supermarket in La Fortuna (turn right where the road becomes impassable because of a one-way system, then left at the bottom and park near the bridge with the railed off pedestrian crossing). There were lots of birds here and we spent a couple of hours over the two evenings that we stayed in the area. Highlights included Fasciated Tiger Heron, Orchard Oriole, Grayish Saltator, Buff-throated Saltator, Louisiana Waterthrush, Bay-headed Tanager, Gray-capped Flycatcher and Black-faced Grosbeak. All of these were seen in the hundred or so metres either side of the Rio Burio, between two bridges. There is a bullring on the other side of the river and if you find this you are in the right area. We watched a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird for several minutes trying to feed at all the blue painted rivets in the walls of the bullring.
Arenal Lodge/La Fortuna
The first bird of the day was a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird which we could watch without getting out of bed. A large kingfisher further down the garden prompted us to set up the scopes and we were able to confirm our first impression that this was in fact Belted Kingfisher, the only one of the trip, and not a bad "garden tick".
Breakfast was included with the room so we went down to the restaurant where we found several bird tables well stocked with fruit. These were constantly visited by the commoner tanagers and new birds included Palm Tanager and Scarlet Tanager. An American Swallow-tailed Kite drifted past whilst we demolished our omelettes.
The hotel has a trail which started behind our suite, so we set off on an early morning stroll. We descended to the first mirador and shortly below it took a track left which headed towards a well wooded stream. For the next couple of hours we covered about 150 metres of track and had some of the most exciting birdwatching that we'd ever had. Birds seemed to be everywhere and our first interesting species was a Crested Guan which stayed for the whole time we were in the area, about 30 feet up in the canopy. Crimson-collared Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, both Jacamar species, Green Hermit, White-breasted Wood Wren, Buff-rumped Warbler and both Black-headed and Buff-throated Saltators all put in appearances. A White Hawk drifted overhead whilst a Keel-billed Toucan crashed about in the tree tops. Finally we spent about 15 minutes watching a breathtaking pair of Golden-winged Warblers - a species that Stiles and Skutch really does not do justice to.
We spent the afternoon at the Tabacon Resort, messing about in the absurdly hot volcanically heated pools, with the volcano itself rumbling and smoking just above. We found a Black Phoebe here but not much else.
In the evening the view across to the volcano was fairly clear, unlike the night before, and we set up our scopes on our patio and spent an hour or so watching lava flows and huge glowing boulders rushing down the mountainside.
Arenal Lodge to Monteverde
Around the suite we finally got a good look at the wren which we had seen several times over the preceding days foraging around the entrance to the hotel reception. Unsurprisingly it was a House Wren. A couple of White-throated Shrike Tanagers were hanging around 'our' pool and we also saw Black-cowled and Northern (Baltimore) Oriole, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet before breakfast. A similar range of tanagers were at the bird tables but a visit from a Tayra, which tried unsuccessfully to climb the bird table poles, was unexpected. One bird which caught our eye was assumed to be an aberrant Clay-coloured Robin. It was mainly like the others present, with a pale bill, but it had a distinct division between the breast, which was the normal dull brown and the belly which was much paler. It was a little like Pale-vented Robin although the paler belly was much more extensive.
We set off early for the drive to Monteverde - a short distance on the map, but several hours in the car. On the road along Lago De Arenal we added Bronzed Cowbird and Yellow-faced Grassquit to the tally. We had expected the road to Monteverde to be poor, but after taking a wrong turn in Quebrada Grande CC found himself on a very steep track uncertain if he would be able to stop. The car was brought to a halt by purposely stalling it, then eased down the last 40 feet very carefully. The roads to Monteverde are poor, but everywhere at least two cars wide, usually more. If you end up on something narrower, you might have missed a signpost.
We had been unable to book our first choice accommodation, Finca Valverde, before leaving for Costa Rica, so we booked ourselves into the Arco Iris Lodge in Santa Elena (both locations can easily be found on the internet). They had no single bedroom accommodation left so for an extra $5, at a very reasonable $65 per night, we had a two-bedroomed cabina. There are birds in the grounds (Squirrel Cuckoo, Emerald Toucanet, Brown Jay, White-throated Robin, Keel-billed Toucan, Blue-crowned Motmot), which are pleasantly laid out and the buffet breakfasts are very good indeed. Highly recommended.
After booking in we drove up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to book a walk for the following morning and then spent some time at the famous Hummingbird Gallery, just outside the reserve entrance.
Hummingbirds in Stiles and Skutch - this book is excellent in many respects, but the hummingbird plates are not one of them. Clearly it is very difficult to reproduce the iridescent colours of these birds on paper, but most species only merit one illustration and the poses used suggest that the illustrator had not seen these birds in life. We had to work very hard with the large numbers of hummingbirds at the gallery to identify most species. Violet Sabrewings were easy, and Magenta-throated Woodstars not too bad once the description of their hovering mode was checked, but we took some time to identify Green-crowned Brilliants, and Purple-throated Mountain Gems.
Exciting visitors to the feeders about half an hour before sunset were a pair of Olingos, a relative of the Kinkajou and about a metre long. These had apparently been coming to feed at the hanging feeders for some weeks and a professional wildlife photographer was waiting (for the 3rd afternoon in succession) to get a decent shot of this seldom seen and normally nocturnal creature. Unfortunately as soon as they arrived at the feeders, most of the tourists present rushed closer to them to try to get their own photographs. Strangely this frightened them off and I doubt that anyone got a decent shot. The birdwatchers present had remained still and would certainly have had prolonged close up views had everyone else followed suit. If nothing else, this episode gave us the chance to get an insight into how this sort of event is experienced by 'the ordinary tourist'. One member of a group of a group of English speakers asked what it what and their 'expert' proclaimed rather loudly "It's a common thing like a squirrel, called a Coati Mundo. There are lots around here." Sadly this seemed to satisfy them all.
We decided to take a Twilight Walk - there are several available in the area. We saw another Black Guan, identified by the guide as a Chachalaca, and roosting Slate-throated Redstart and Fork-tailed Emerald. These latter seemed undisturbed by our presence but we were uncertain about the wisdom of shining torches on sleeping birds. We also encountered several Orange-kneed Tarantulas and a few Agoutis.
An early start saw us at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where we watched a brief video about the history of the reserve and its importance as a conservation site. Returning outside we found a Coati loafing around the picnic tables and a pair of Orange-bellied Trogons, which were easily photographed. Apparently they are often to be seen in this area, having realised that there is a plentiful and accessible supply of insects that are attracted during the night to the visitor centre lights. This was also the 250th species of the trip, which meant that we had reached our original goal.
There were surprisingly few birds around for the first half hour, when we looked for Quetzals in an area they had been feeding in recent days, but JD saw some movement just off the path which turned out to be one of the birds we really wanted to see, Black-faced Solitaire. Actually these were unexpectedly common, being seen in ones and twos on quite a few occasions during the day. A number of interesting species were seen over the next few hours, with highlights including Bare-shanked Screech Owl, a brace each of wrens and woodcreepers and some superb views of beautiful Golden-browed Chlorophonias from the suspension bridge, where they were building a nest within a few feet of the passing tourists, and presenting an opportunity for some photographs.
Another known Quetzal site was tried and CC spotted a female whilst the rest of the party had gone ahead to the target tree. There was a male in this tree but it flew away soon after we arrived and was only seen in flight by JD and CC.
After the walk we returned to the Hummingbird Gallery, where new species included White-tailed Emerald, Coppery-headed Emerald and possible Plain-capped Starthroat.
Driving back to Monteverde in the early afternoon we stopped near the Cheese Factory to have a look at the river and the pine trees by the roadside. The only bird of note was a small warbler-like bird which was showing quite well about 15-20 feet up in the conifers. From the illustrations we were convinced that this was a male Hermit Warbler but Stiles and Skutch describe this as "Very rare migrant." on the plate. Coupled with the Nashville Warbler from a few days previous, this was beginning to sound a little suspect, however we turned to the main description and noted that the bird is seen "mostly . in foliage of conifers, especially . Guatemalan Cypress" and ". several sightings at Monteverde .". Further research on return to the UK revealed that a Hermit Warbler had been seen in the conifers by the Cheese Factory in the winter of 2001/2002, which gave us even more confidence in our identification, although there are actually few confusion species.
Monteverde to Cerro De Muerte
After breakfast we followed the "cemetery" walk described in "A Travel and Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica" by Sekerak and Conger. For the first 10 minutes we saw virtually nothing but then as we passed the Clinic we heard a loud and extraordinary call. We felt sure that this was the "bonk" of the
Three-wattled Bellbird, although it didn't have the accompanying whistle. Unfortunately the call was coming from the wrong side of a tall tree, behind a house, in a farmyard. We shuffled around for a while, unsure of the protocol (or the guard dogs) when a voice asked "Have you seen him yet?". When we said we thought it might be a Bellbird, the speaker, who said she was an ornithological guide on her way to pick up her clients, confirmed that it was and suggested that it would be OK to enter the farm. We spotted the farmer and were able to ask for permission, which was readily given and found the bird quickly. It shared the tree with a Blue-crowned Motmot, an Emerald Toucanet, a Keel-billed Toucan and a Masked Tityra.
More birds were seen on the rest of the walk, with Yellow-throated Euphonia, Rufous-capped Warbler and a Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, looking rather more robust than the textbook illustration, being additions to our list.
We set off for Cerro De Muerte before lunchtime and stopped for a while at the bridge on the Monteverde side of Guacimal, where we saw our second Broad-winged Hawk and our first Social Flycatchers, although these may have been overlooked.
The drive to Cerro De Muerte was long and made longer by a detour back to Punta Leona, where we thought we had left our fleece jackets (a wasted 90 minutes!) and passed through San Jose, which is motoring hell. We may have missed an important signpost, because we ended up driving in heavy traffic through built up areas, but after several detours and abortive attempts we found our way out on the Cartago side and started the long climb into the mountains. Incidentally, our exit from San Jose was made easier when we found a bus bound for Cartago, which was on our route, and followed it for several kilometres.
The drive into the mountains was quite surprising. It was not as bleak as we'd expected, although frequently foggy, and the road was actually well maintained. There are several sodas and restaurants along the route and shops at the village of Empalme, an easy 10 kms from our hotel.
We had failed to contact the Savegre Mountain Lodge, which looked rather nice on its website, so 'phoned ahead to the Albergue Montana de Tapanti, recommended in Sekerak and Conger. The owners have changed and the couple who have taken the hotel over were unaware of (but delighted by) their inclusion in the book. The rooms, especially the newer bungalows, are spacious and well maintained and the meals although limited in choice are fresh and well prepared. Recommended, although there are several good alternatives in the area, the Finca Eddie Serrano being one that looked to have potential and which had Quetzals within its boundaries.
Albergue de Montana Tapanti, Georgina's, Cerro de Muerte Paramo and Finca Eddie Serrano
Early morning at altitude was pretty chilly, but a short walk around the hotel was rewarding, with Spotted Crowned Woodcreeper, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Flame-coloured Tanager, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler and Flame-throated Warbler all fairly easy to find.
After breakfast we drove to the high point of the road (completely missing the famous "Georgina's" café at the first attempt). The site guides recommend a couple of tracks in this area, but these seem to have been closed off. However there were tracks from the café itself (ask for access) so after a coke and half an hour watching the hummingbird feeders we went for a walk.
The feeders merit some attention. They are located at the back of the café, overlooking some tanks containing enormous trout. The most numerous birds there were female Volcano Hummingbirds (no males) with Band-tailed Barbthroats, Green-crowned Brilliants, Blue-throated Goldentail (but see notes - this species is unlikely here) and Scintillant and Magnificent Hummingbirds present in varying numbers. One tricky species had us scouring the field guide. We had pretty much decided that it was Fiery-throated Hummingbird, despite being unable to see the coppery-orange throat, and stood up to leave. Unbelievably the throat colouring became visible as soon as we were standing, confirming the suggestion in the book that it is visible "mainly from above". A difficult, but surprising and often delightful family.
We tried the trails behind the café and found them to be worth a visit. The Sendero de Descanso seemed pretty good. To get onto it, it was necessary to pass through a sort of lean-to pig sty and then cross the tiny but foul-selling stream behind the café.
We were pleased to see more Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers here and even more delighted with the tiny Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher at the edge of the woods. Within the woods themselves there were several Black-bellied Nightingale-Thrushes and a variety of other species, but the sound that we had assumed to be a large mammal or two moving through the undergrowth actually turned out to be a pair of Large-footed Finches.
Next we drove the rough track towards the masts on the summit of the mountain. We quickly found a pair of Volcano Juncos that posed obligingly for photographs. These birds looked incredibly bad-tempered.
Lunch beckoned so we drove north, down the mountain and eventually pulled in to the Finca Eddie Serrano. The trout here was good and we noticed a Slaty Flowerpiercer in the bushes below the dining area. There were a few birds around and several signs referring to guided walks to see Quetzals. We hired a guide at a very reasonable rate and he took us up the hill behind the buildings on a steep trail and quickly found us a pair of Quetzals which gave much better views than those at Monteverde, so that this time we felt that we really had seen them. He then took us for a wander around the trails, which were very reminiscent of much of upland Britain. Apart from the elevation we could easily have been below the tree line in parts of the Lake District or Mid Wales. Plenty of birds including Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch and a Blue-crowned Woodnymph. We tried hard to make a second Slaty Flowerpiercer into a Peg-billed Finch but it wasn't interested.
The cabinas at this Finca looked quite nice, although not as spacious as those at Albergue Montana Tapanti, but we got the impression that this would be a good place for bird watchers to stay for a couple of days. It is higher up the mountain than the Albergue, but the road is so good that this should not make too much difference.
Cerro de Muerte - Aviarios Del Caribe
The last two days of our holiday were the least planned. We had decided that the southern Caribbean coast was accessible because our flight was due to leave San Jose in the evening. We were uncertain how long it would take to get from the hotel to the coast, but we were resigned to a long drive.
A few minutes around the hotel before departure let us add Mountain Elania to the trip list, and CC saw a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush (JD had already seen one the previous day). We decided to take the slower route to the coast, via Turrialba, because this had the advantage of avoiding San Jose and the prospect of a few birding stops, the main highway being rather busy. Finding the Turrialba road through Cartago seemed to be dependent upon instinct. We drove as far along the main road as we could and then turned left and then back right on ourselves. There may have been road signs but we didn't see any that were helpful. There were signs for the volcano (Irazu) and we followed these as they seemed to take us in the right direction, before finally finding a meaningful sign post for the towns we would pass through on the way. We had several stops and found little of note, although the countryside was very pretty and the drive pleasant, until we halted at an obvious iron bridge a couple of kilometres past Pacayas. In a tree on the north-east side of the bridge (assuming the bridge runs east-west, which it may not), just up a short track we found several very noisy Red-headed Barbets. There were also Golden-winged Warblers and Hepatic Tanagers in the area and our first male Wilson's Warbler, although we had seen several females over the preceding few days.
The drive was actually not too bad, despite being stuck behind a couple of large trucks for the last 30 kilometres down to the Limon highway and by mid-afternoon we were pulling into Aviarios Del Caribe where we were pleased to discover that they had vacancies. This establishment is run as a hotel set just off the road on the banks of the Rio Estrella, in its own nature reserve. Its main raison d'etre is as a rescue centre for injured and orphaned sloths. If we were only allowed to recommend one location for visiting birdwatchers to Costa Rica to stay, then we would probably opt for this one. The location is delightful, the owners extremely welcoming and committed to their cause, the rooms airy and comfortable and well maintained and the staff, including their marvellous security guard, Juan are some of the nicest people we met in our three weeks in the country. Add to this the wildlife (monkeys, caimans on the river bank at night, a huge heron/egret roost and some excellent birds) and the boxes full of beautiful baby sloths wrapped around their surrogate mothers (teddy bears) and Buttercup, the star of the show, and you have the makings of a memorable experience. By staying here, you will be contributing financially to the work they are doing, so if you get the chance, go.
After checking in we drove the short distance Cahuita for a late lunch and then returned to the Rio Estrella bridge and walked along one of the nearby tracks. There were several hirundine species here, including some evidence of migration, with a flock of Chimney Swifts and a single Purple Martin overhead. Tawny-crested Tanager and Black-cheeked Woodpecker added to the interest.
Aviarios do breakfasts but not evening meals so we returned to Cahuita for an excellent dinner in a village that is unlike any other place we had visited in Costa Rica, with a very relaxed Caribbean style. We finished the evening off being shown the Caimans by Juan, who picks out numerous reptiles along the river bank with his torch.
We began our last full day with a 6 a.m. canoe trip from Aviarios, with Cali taking the oars. Cali knows the local birds rather well, so be sure to tell him that you're interested if you're lucky enough to be guided by him.
The first part of the trip follows the tranquil backwater that leads inland from the little dock. This is almost Hollywood style jungle and very relaxing. Quite a few birds around but we didn't identify anything we hadn't seen before. Back out onto the main river and we suddenly noticed that there were hundreds of Barn Swallows about, all heading steadily northwards. We had seen only one in the preceding three weeks. The first 'new' bird was an Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and then Cali informed us that the calls we were hearing belonged to White-throated Crake. A Squirrel Cuckoo clambered, squirrel-like, through the canopy and then flew across the river just behind us. Lots of Common Black Hawks were in the area with numerous heron species and an assortment of New World and (to us) more familiar waders. A Giant Cowbird was pottering about at the water's edge whilst an Osprey patrolled the estuary, and Least Bittern and Tricolored Heron were two new Ardeids for us. Eight herons before breakfast was, we thought, good going. An Orchard Oriole showing nicely in a riverside bush was a new bird for Cali. We were unreasonably excited by the brief appearance of a Common Gallinule (Moorhen) as this was, we thought our 291st species of the trip, so 300 was getting tantalisingly close.
Breakfast was ready when the canoe returned to Aviarios and then we spent a few minutes in the woodland within the hotel grounds, At the point where the trail enters the trees there is a footbridge over a stream. CC went back to the room to get the by now indispensable dictation machine whilst JD tried to get a decent photograph of the Scarlet-rumped Tanagers which were common here, visiting the fruit bushes and bird tables nearby.
By the time CC returned, JD had realised that some of the Tanagers were actually Red-rumped Caciques and that there were a couple of birds in the stream which looked unfamiliar. It took us a few minutes to get a decent view of them (there were lots of birds coming down to forage in the stream) but we were eventually rewarded with a good look at a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. A Summer Tanager was also showing well in the area.
We drove to Puerto Viejo with a detour to drop off a couple of hitchhikers at Bris Bris and pick up some cash (the bank has an ATM) and then dropped in at Puerto Viejo for lunch. Not many birds were around but an offshore Osprey entertained us whilst we had a stroll down the beach.
As we had a few hours of daylight left we decided to carry on southwards to the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Park. The road from Puerto Viejo is not as bad as some guidebooks suggest. It is heavily pot-holed in parts but there seems to have been a fair bit of work done on the coast road south of Limon in the last couple of years. It was easily passable in the Terios and could probably have been driven in a car with a lower wheelbase with care.
The park was easy enough to find - just follow the coast road and tracks until you run out of road. There is a small river to cross at the park entrance but we managed to get across this dry-shod. We met a Dutch birdwatcher a few 100 metres into the park who was watching a small flock of birds. He had seen a Euphonia species but we couldn't relocate it. There were Prothonotary Warblers and Tawny-Crested Tanagers and a parrot flew in but couldn't be seen after it landed in a palm tree.
The track through the park was quite rough and there were several steep sections. As it was also rather warm we were on the point of turning back when we met a North American birder who told us he'd seen an Antwren sp, several Antshrikes and Bay Wrens a few hundred metres further along. We decided to push on a bit, and soon found a nice troop of Howler Monkeys. Shortly after we heard a call that was rather reminiscent of the Laurel and Hardy theme. We checked Bay Wren in the field guide and decided that this was what we were hearing but we couldn't get a look at it. A much smaller bird hopping about in the tree tops was a Dotted-winged Antwren. This put us on 295 species (we thought) and was the last new bird that we saw that day. A bird calling repeatedly had been identified by the American as "one of the Antshrikes" and although there were several calling in the area, and we could hear them for some distance as we walked back to the car, we didn't get a single glimpse and the call, usually one note repeated 9 times, was not described in Stiles and Skutch.
Our last day. A walk before breakfast along the Aviarios trails allowed us to get a reasonable look at Bay Wrens (we remembered the calls from the previous day) but several birds high in the trees were much more challenging. Our first guess was that these were rather like European Wrynecks and we watched them for quite some time before piecing all the glimpses together and coming up with Banded-backed Wrens. Of course after the detective work was done they did finally come out into the open to give us clinching views. A really nice bird.
We then walked out of the grounds of Aviarios, as we had heard a fair bit of bird song from across the road, whilst walking the trails. There is a small shop/snack bar called Pulperia Las Brisas just opposite the entrance and a dead tree behind it held a pair of Long-tailed Tyrants - another target bird which, though apparently quite common, had eluded us until then. A pair of Black-crowned Tityras were also in this tree and with the Blue-headed Parrots that flew in, we were suddenly on 299 species. More puzzling were a pair of Woodpeckers using a hole in this tree, presumably as a nest hole. We looked at these birds for quite some time. With strongly contrasting black and white facial markings, Black-cheeked Woodpecker was ruled out. We took fairly extensive notes on these birds but on checking the field guide over breakfast both candidates seemed unlikely, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker because it is a rare winter visitor and does not breed in Costa Rica, and Acorn Woodpecker, which these birds most closely resembled, because they are described as a bird of middle and upper elevations occasionally straying down to 3000 feet. It was only when we got back to the UK and listened to our tapes that an almost throw away comment "err . pale eye" allowed us to completely rule out the Sapsuckers (and indeed every other woodpecker species found in Costa Rica except for Pale-billed, which is much larger and probably unmistakable). Unless there is a very similar species that has recently colonised Costa Rica, these were Acorn Woodpeckers. A rather unexpected 300th species.
In truth we had forgotten to include both Least Bittern and Common Gallinule in our records, so we had actually comfortable past the 300 mark that morning, and we had a few species that we thought we might eventually identify, but we left Aviarios believing that we had seen 299 species, with a 'plane to catch and a real desire to see another allegedly common bird, Eastern Meadowlark.
The Dutch birder we'd met had told us that he had seen this species near the bus stop to the Lankester Gardens in Paraiso so we thought we'd try and find this location. The drive back to the Valle Central was quite easy and we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant after the Braullio Carillo NP, hoping that there might be a few birds in the area - there weren't. We then missed the turn off on to a road that should have past San Jose to the east and ended up driving right into the middle of the capital. We spent an unbelievable two hours trying to find our way towards Cartago/Paraiso before deciding that we risked missing our flight and turning back. The traffic was horrendous and road signs non-existent so we navigated by the sun and after a number of wrong turns finally found a motorway which we followed for ages before finally finding a sign for the airport.
Our final experience in Costa Rica was at the airport itself. Our car rental company gave us a ride to Departures and as soon as we got out we were surrounded by people wanting to sell us exit visas. We asked our driver if this was normal and he said it was, so we parted with about $30. The immigration official at the entrance took these visas and said they were probably fakes (they are being sold within about 5 metres of the door!) but after a rather unscientific scrutiny allowed us in. We had intended to sort out our hand luggage in the airport but were given no opportunity to do so as we were directed straight to the check-in desk. This meant that we took our binoculars and field guides with us in our hand luggage but had no warm clothing for the flight. Hardly the end of the world but a minor inconvenience that could easily have been avoided with advance notice.
305 species (303 recorded, plus Bank Swallow and Northern Rough-winged Swallow) of which all but 16(JD)/19(CC) were new birds to us. On an organised tour with specialist guides larger numbers are likely over three weeks and we were disappointed to miss a few species that we had hoped or expected to see. Few Cotingas, Manakins and Antbirds were seen and Eastern Meadowlark was a bird we'd really hoped to find. Against that there is the pleasure derived from identifying species ourselves and the opportunity to tailor the holiday to our own preferences.
If we were to return to the Costa Rica (and the only thing stopping us is the long list of other places we want to visit), we might spend time in another part of Corcovado because the dolphin trips, although very rewarding and allowing to see a handful of species that we would never have seen from land, were mostly bird-free days. We'd like to spend more time at Aviarios and a night at Siquerres might be fun. We would not advise against visiting any of the areas that we went to. Palo Verde is well worth the effort. In truth on a break like this you will spend a fair bit of time travelling, so might try to plan a few birding stops when undertaking long journeys. We didn't drive at night very much. It's obviously an option if you don't want to waste daylight, but from our limited experience, not one that we'd recommend. All in all though, if we return to Costa Rica we'll almost certainly do it ourselves again.
Chris Cameron - e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org - November 2003