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A Report from

Costa Rica - 11 TO 18 March 2004,

Bob Biggs and Steve Scott


I had fancied a trip to Costa Rica for several years and Steve didn't take much persuading, particularly when we got a flight from Newcastle for just over £450 with Martinair, via Amsterdam.

For a variety of reasons, we both failed to do sufficient homework before our visit and this cost us quite a bit of time. On reflection, I think it was slightly ambitious to go for just 7 days. However, with better planning, we would have made better use of our time and presumably, seen more than the 210 species we have on our "list".

This proved to be an eventful few days. My report will not appeal to the purists but those of you who like a giggle might like to read on!


I pre-booked all of our accommodation via the internet. We stayed at the Hotel Brilla Sol on our first night [the Hotel arranges for you to be picked up as well]. The second and third nights were spent at Villa Lapas near Carara and the next two at Selva Verde Lodge. Our last two nights were at the Savegre Lodge and Orosi Lodge respectively. As you can see from that itinerary, we moved around a bit - arguably too much. 

We were pleased with all accommodation. Some Hotels were dearer than others, ranging widely from $50 per room at Brilla Sol and Orosi Lodge to $85 per person at Savegre Lodge, although this included food.


Once again, this was pre-booked over the internet [Rental Car Group ] and we had a Toyota Corolla for the week. After taking out all insurance and paying for a second driver, the cost was about $420. The car, from Europcar, went well although we found the tracks to the Savegre Lodge and to Tapanti to be fairly hard work.


If I only had one thing to say here, it would be to be aware that Costa Rica was at the back of the queue when they were dishing out road signs! This makes for some difficult driving, particularly in San Jose if you are daft enough to get lost in that maze!

It's very hot in the Carara area and also humid so don't under-estimate these conditions. It was wet off and on at Selva Verde but you'd expect that.

There were very few problems with insects although I got a few bites towards the end of the holiday. I'd probably become a little blasé about the spray. Just goes to show that you need to keep putting it on.

We had no health problems except the odd attack of dementia - details of which will follow!


Thursday 11 March.

Left Newcastle on KLM flight to Amsterdam at 6.05 a.m. We then picked up the 10.20a.m.flight to San Jose via Miami. It's a long way - nearly 10 hours to Miami and another 2 hours 30 minutes to San Jose after a two-hour wait at Miami. We spent part of that time at Immigration as you have to go through the same arrival procedure as those who are visiting Miami. Then we went back on to our plane.

We arrived slightly early and were picked up by the Hotel mini-bus. We were met by a few mosquitoes in our room so we splattered most of them and tried to get some sleep although being 6 hours behind and having travelled 20 hours made this difficult.

Friday 12 March

We were up at dawn and we had a look around the garden. We saw a number of birds, including Hoffman's Woodpecker, Yellow-green Vireo, the first of many Blue-gray Tanagers and Clay-colored Robins, the odd Wren and Dove and about another half dozen species. After a refreshing breakfast of fresh fruit, our car arrived and we were soon on our way to Carara. After about 10 miles, we saw several Black Vultures flying above the road. We stopped to find that we were looking down over a reservoir, which was very birdy. The Reservoir is between Garita and Atenas. Although some distance from the road, we were able to scope several species on the water, including two Muscovy Ducks, many Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed and Least Grebes, several Heron species and a few smaller birds in the surrounding bushes. It was a good place to see a variety of birds but we had to move on and decided to keep going as far as Orotina before stopping again. This time we were looking for the Owls in the Square but could not see them. We didn't get any help so gave up and moved on towards Villa Lapas. We were soon there and as we were earlier than we had expected, we drove the track to Tarcoles and this gave us several good birds, including Flycatchers, Woodpeckers, Seedeaters and Orioles. We then checked in at Villa Lapas before going back to the track, where we saw 3 Striped-headed Sparrows. We hadn't seen them earlier and we never saw them again. We then moved   on to the big bridge that crosses the river. No sooner were we out of the car than we had four Scarlet Macaws fly over us and stop in trees close by. This gave us excellent scope views of these beautiful birds. We then walked along the bridge, which was not my favourite place as the traffic is too close! We saw several good birds on or at the edge of the river, including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mangrove Swallow, Black-necked Stilt, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and several more fly-over Scarlet Macaws but non of them stopped. The Crocs were fairly impressive too!

We then went back to Villa Lapas, changed and drove to Tarcoles, where we ate at the Hotel Carara. This was sufficient if not spectacular. After a hard day, we then returned to Villa Lapas and did our bird call for the day. This would be our customary last act of each evening. With binoculars, scope, camcorder and Field Guide, we decided not to record the birds as we saw them but rather to agree a list at the end of each day. Steve agreed to do the hard work by writing down and looking after the list.

Saturday 13 March

Up early again and after a brief look outside, we made our way to Carara, seeing a Crested Caracara en route. We arrived at the HQ just after 6 am and as there was no one there, we walked the short trail, which was fairly quiet but gave us great views of Spectacled Owl and White-whiskered Puffbird. Other birds noted included Rose- throated Becard, Orange-billed Sparrow and Green Kingfisher. We arrived back at the car park and paid our $8, saw a Violaceous Trogon and then walked the longer trail. This proved to be even quieter but again we did get excellent views of a few birds, including Baird's Trogon and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. A small group of Scarlet Macaws stopped briefly but soon flew out of the trees and a brilliant Blue Morpho cruised past. We then walked aimlessly until given a choice of right or left. We took left and after a few minutes, ended up on the main road! That gave us the opportunity to make another decision - right or left. We agreed left as we had driven along the road a few times and were sure that the main entrance to Carara was that way. So we walked for 20 minutes along the busy main road, in hot and humid conditions, before stopping and deciding that we should have gone right. We walked back and found to our dismay, that we had failed to spot a sign at the very place we had made our original decision that showed the entrance was 100 yards to the right - waste of the best part of an hour and not good for the health or spirit! We walked to the HQ and drank a litre of water.

Next stop was just down the road for the VigilanciaTrail. We messed up here too. We had hoped to see Boat-billed Herons and the like but the track goes on forever and we had to stop after about an hour as we felt we would not have made it back! Our hour along the road had taken its toll on us. We did see a few birds, in particular about 20 Band-rumped Swifts, Purple Gallinule, several Egrets and Herons and more Mangrove Swallows. As we walked back near to the start of the track, we came across a number of birds, including Dotted-winged Antwren, Black-crowned Tityra, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Plain Xenops, Brown Jay, Northern Waterthrush and Prothonotary Warbler. We also saw a few Chestnut-sided Warblers, which proved to be the most common Warbler we saw throughout Costa Rica. My favourite bird here was Bay-headed Tanager, a number of which appeared and then disappeared within a minute. I wish we had stayed here earlier rather than walking so far. It was the following day before I was to realise that this was also just about the right area for the Orange-collared Manakin lek....

Slightly exhausted, we went back to Villa Lapas where I waited at 3pm for my wife, Lorraine, to phone, as agreed before we left England. No phone call came so I checked with Reception to find that the number had changed! I rang instead but of course, Lorraine was still trying to phone me. Eventually I left a message to say I would ring [at 9am UK time - 3 am Costa Rica time]. We drove off to Tarcoles, somewhat fraught, and walked along the beach, which gave us a few waders, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican and distant Terns. On our way back, we birded the track again and saw Blue Grosbeak, Groove-billed Ani, Lineated Woodpecker, and a few more Flycatchers [or were they the same as yesterday!] I have to say that Flycatchers do become a little exasperating and I couldn't be bothered trying to sort out all of those that look the same!

We went back to Villa Lapas and saw half a dozen Spotted Sandpipers on the river. Steve saw a few White Ibis fly over. We ate at Villa Lapas after driving to Hotel Carara only to find that the place was full. I set the alarm for 3 am and dutifully spoke to my family with both eyes closed when the time came.

Sunday 14 March

I wasn't too fresh when I got up but I soon got going when I saw 3 Fiery Billed Aracari outside our room! This was a good start and we birded the grounds for a couple of hours, seeing Squirrel Cuckoo, Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogon, Painted Bunting, a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Masked Tityra, Rose Throated Becard, Social and Gray-capped flycatchers and a few Vireos and Warblers.

We checked out after making sure we had left nothing under the beds or in the bathroom and I drove along the main road until we were able to look out over the sea. As expected, we saw a number of Laughing Gulls, Frigatebirds and Pelicans but got a nice surprise when 2 Brown Boobies came past, one of which sat on the sea for some time to give good scope views. Feeling that our luck was changing for the better, we drove to Orotina to look for the Owls again. We had been told to ask a chap who sells drinks in the Square. We did - and he pointed up to the trees! Happily, another man saw us looking and he put us on to 2 Black and White Owls and one Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. They were wonderful and we slipped our Guide a few Dollars for his kindness.

We were heading for Selva Verde Lodge, which we estimated would be about 4 hours away from Villa Lapas. We knew we would have to have a bit of luck in Alajuela if we were to find the right road towards Virgin del Sorocco and beyond - no such luck and after a brief journey along a one-way street [the wrong way!], I decided that the road to Volcan Poas was the safer bet even though it would take us out of our way. The volcano has the luxury of being sign-posted and you don't get much of that in Costa Rica. As we approached the higher area, the rain started to pour down and fog joined in the fun. This was a far cry from the heat we had left just 3 hours earlier. We stopped at the La Paz waterfall to have a break and a look around but there were no birds. Presumably, it is better at the main entrance area but we did not have time to go in there. The rain was very heavy so we abandoned our plans to bird the Virgin del Sorocco area - a big miss as we were looking forward to that. We carried on and stopped at the Mirador Café for a much needed coffee and great views of hummers. As a bonus, 7 Silver-throated Tanagers braved the rain and ate from the feeder lower down. The hummers were everywhere and we saw Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violet-ear, Coppery-headed Emerald, Long-tailed Hermit, Green Hermit, Green Thorntail and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. This is a great place and totally recommended if you are passing. On our way out, a Rufous-collared Sparrow and Yellow-faced Grassquit were in the car park and a bedraggled Bird of Prey  [probably a Broad-winged Hawk] sat glumly on a wire looking very wet!

We arrived at Selva Verde with about one hour of light left. A brief look around the grounds across the road gave us Black-faced Grosbeak and we saw Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers from the bar as we sipped a well-earned bottle of Imperial. We then made our way back to our spacious room to freshen up for dinner. I might have checked whether I'd left anything under the bed and in the bathroom at Villa Lapas but I certainly hadn't looked in the drawers as half of my clothes were still there. Great! That left one spare pair of trousers and 2 shirts to last me for the next 5 days.

Monday 15 March.

I did a bit of hand washing and we then made our way to the Dining Room for an early coffee. We saw a Wood Thrush en route and Montezuma Oropendolas were feasting on bird tables full of bananas. We decided to join the one-hour birding tour at 7am to see if we could get to grips with the best areas. Unfortunately, we only went to the places we had been the previous evening. We did see a few new birds, including Rufous Motmot in trees near the Restaurant and Red-lored Parrot, Cinnamon Becard and a flash of a White- collared Manakin across the road near the Butterfly garden. It started to rain and we made our way back. Just outside our room, two small birds flew into a tree and we were delighted to find that they were a pair of Olive-backed Euphonias.

We decided to move on to La Selva Field Station and bird the track leading to the buildings. It was still raining fairly heavily but nevertheless we were soon there and sat in the car, hoping for a break in the clouds, which happened fairly quickly. It then rained birds!  This is another place on the "must do" list. We walked slowly along the track and saw several birds within the first hour. These included all three Saltators, Yellow-tailed and Black-cowled Orioles, Crimson-collared, Scarlet-rumped [Passerini], White-lined and other Tanagers, Masked Tityra, a few Flycatcher sp and Chestnut-colored, Smoky-brown and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. What a start! I then scoped some trees in the distance as I could see a bird at the top of one of them - female Snowy Cotinga! I liked this place.

We stayed in this area for a further three hours and the weather was kind. We walked the track twice and kept seeing different birds as we did so. These included Keel-billed Toucan and Blue-black Grosbeak near the gatehouse at one end of the track and Black-chested Hawk and Golden-hooded Tanager at the other end. Somewhere in the middle, we saw Banded-backed Wren and Black-striped Sparrow among others.

After the best part of 5 hours' birding, we decided to head back to Selva Verde Lodge. This proved to be good timing as the heavens opened and that was almost that for the rest of the day. We just had time after it stopped to nip across the road and we saw a White-breasted Wood-Wren. I thought I saw an Owl Butterfly but couldn't be sure.

16 March

We were up early again. We had decided to re-visit La Selva track. We had a quick coffee at the Restaurant. The feeders were full of Owl Butterflies! They must like their bananas. This was an odd sight but made up for the lack of early birds. Having said that, on our way back to our room, we saw a small bird on the ground, which proved to be a Chestnut-backed Antbird, the only one we would see.

We drove back to the La Selva track. There was already a bus there and this was carrying a number of American birders.  It actually made a nice change to meet other birders. We walked the track again, with rain in the air but nothing sufficient to stop us for very long. Many of the birds we saw were similar to the previous day but we added Chestnut- mandibled Toucan, Long-tailed Tyrant, Green Honeycreeper [me], Yellow-billed Cacique [Steve], Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Fasciated Antshrike, Gray Catbird, Red-Legged Honeycreeper and others to our list. There would have been more had we stayed longer. Perhaps we should have.

We had a last look around Selva Verde Butterfly garden and Steve got a better glimpse of the White-collared Manakin - they don't give themselves up. There were a few other birds in the area as well but nothing new. There were 100s of Raptors flying over, most of which appeared to be Broad-winged Hawks but also included Black-chested Hawk and probably others if we had been able to see them well enough.

We checked out and made our way to Braulio Carrillo, en route for the Savegre Lodge. I had read great reports of this place and we soon found the entrance for the Ranger Station. We took the Quebrada Gonzales Track and walked it for the next hour and a half. I have no difficulty in remembering what we saw. White-breasted Wood-Wren! Full stop. I couldn't believe it. This was not the easiest of walks with scope attached and for nothing. We got back to the car, paid our $6 and waited for something to happen. In the next 45 minutes, 2 birds were seen. Both were Emerald Tanagers and very nice they were too - but really!

We decided to move on and by now it was around 1.30pm. We picked up a couple of young German hitch-hikers as we left the Ranger Station as they were having difficulty getting a bus. They were not birders but as we approached the outskirts of San Jose and after a nice discussion with them about their holiday, I nearly threw them out when the young man said that they had been walking the track across the road from the Ranger Station and "there were lots of birds there but we don't know what they were". That's where our birds got to then.

And so we dropped them off with a cheery wave and headed to San Jose. First main left would take us to San Pedro, then Cartago and away - according to the map. Over 2 hours later, after evading budding Schumachers and Kamikaze pedestrians/cyclists, we were still in that little old city! Signing was either non-existent or useless. On one occasion, we picked up a sign saying "San Pedro/ Cartago". Now, if that wasn't a sign from the Gods, what was?  We followed the road as if our lives depended on it [probably did by then] and found after a while that the choice was - you guessed - right or left? No signs to help! That was enough for me; I'd had it with San Jose. I stopped in front of a taxi, got out, explained in sign language that we were going round in a circle and gave the man $20 to get us on to the Cartago road. After about 10 minutes of weaving in and out of side streets and traffic jams, we made it. My newly-acquired friend pulled in to the side and I did the same. He got out of his taxi and we shook hands. As we were about to move off, a van smashed into a car behind his parked taxi. With smoke billowing out of something behind me, I drove off not having seen anything. It was nothing to do with me but knowing our luck, we've have been in prison for years if I hadn't moved on.

We then drove the Cerro de la Muerte in the dark, through fog and all that goes with it. I swear that by the time we arrived at the Savegre Lodge, my eyes would have passed for Marty Feldman's! An interesting day, it had taken us nearly 6 hours to travel the 100 miles or so from Braulio Carrillo. We had a few beers. I didn't get much sleep that night.

17 March

We were up fairly early. There was a lovely freshness about the air and despite all we had been through in the previous 24 hours, we were soon in and among some great birds along the trail by the river. Second tick of the day was a Resplendent Quetzal by the river. The area was full of lovely birds and about 4 Collared Redstarts certainly made a case for "birds of the trip" award. I got a brief view of an Emerald Toucanet and we both saw Acorn Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. We moved on to a nest site for another pair of Quetzals, where we also saw Hairy Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Warbler and Yellow-thighed Finch.

This was a great place and after walking back to the Lodge for breakfast, we re-traced our steps, seeing Flame-colored Tanager, Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher and Black-capped Flycatcher. Steve nipped back to the room and saw a Yellowish Flycatcher en route. While he was a way, I added Flame-throated Warbler and Yellow-bellied Elaenia to my list.

We returned to the Lodge and spent a few minutes looking at the feeders, which included Slaty Flowerpiercer, Magnificent and Scintillant Hummingbirds and Green Violet-ear. I could have stayed longer but we knew we had to move on towards Orosi and as our driving confidence was a little low, we decided we didn't want to take any further chances. We made a few stops along the way back up the track, seeing Sooty Robin and Gray-tailed Mountain-gem. Once up on the Cerro, we drove to La Georgina's Café to say we had been. Although the feeders were full of hummers, we couldn't add any new species. I think we probably overlooked Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds here as everyone else seems to see them. We did walk down the track for a while and looked into a wood. We got excellent views of a Large-footed Finch through the scope and less acceptable views of about 4 birds on the floor, which were probably Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush.

We then set off and after a few Kilometres, came across a kettle of Raptors. We couldn't stop on the bend so drove on until we could. There was no sign of the birds but a Buffy Tuftedcheek flew in front of us so that was some compensation.

We found Orosi fairly easily and had time for a brief look around the area outside Orosi Lodge. It was raining and night was not far away. Nevertheless, we got great views of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow in an allotment opposite the Lodge and several other birds came and went during the last hour of darkness, none of which were new.

18 March

We were away early and we made our way to Tapanti, which opens at 7am. We found the track to Tapanti to be poor in places so don't expect to drive it quickly. We stopped once we had crossed the bridge [the one missing part of the road!] and immediately saw several Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and other birds, which probably included a Nashville Warbler but I couldn't get good enough views to be sure. We birded the area outside the main gate for a while but saw very little. At 7 am we drove through the gate, which had been open all the time, and were told to pay on our way back. We would have done better to have entered earlier as the track was good for birds once we had entered the reserve. We knew we only had about 4 hours and that weighed on us so we decided to keep on the main track and not be tempted to bird the trails. I have a feeling that we would have seen some excellent birds if we had. We did quite well in any event.

Our first stop produced a couple of Slate-throated Redstarts, White-throated Robin and several Common Bush-Tanagers, which seemed to be everywhere at Tapanti. Our next stop gave us some even more impressive species, with Collared Trogon leading the list of stars. Support was provided by Golden-winged Warbler [me], Spangled-cheeked Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Tanager and another Slate-throated Redstart. We then came to a look-out over the fast flowing river way below. This produced several White-collared Swifts and, probably, Vaux's Swift. We drove as far as the Trail and walked a few yards down to find more Spangled-cheeked Tanagers with more Common Bush-Tanagers. Steve glimpsed an Azure-headed Jay and we both saw Brown Jay back along the track. We also came across a group of birds on our way back, which included Blackburnian Warbler. Several Blue Morpho Butterflies fluttered around. This is a place that needed more time but we hadn't got it so we left, seeing little on our way back other than close up Bronzed Cowbird, Black Phoebe and Steve saw another White-eared Ground-Sparrow.

We checked out at noon for our 7.30pm flight - that's what San Jose does to you! Our last confirmed new bird for the trip awaited us as we left Orosi - House Sparrow! Of course, having sought detailed directions from staff at the Savegre and Orosi Lodges, and been told that it was much easier going back to the Airport than coming the other way, we sped through San Jose without any problems and got to the Airport area by 1.45!! There was still time for one more frustrating episode. We filled the car with petrol and stopped at a Burger King to kill half an hour. When we came out, we heard a bird calling from the edge of a field next to the car park. We walked towards the bird, which was in the scrub, and then it flew up into a small tree. It was small and yellow and had very faint wing-bars, no eye-ring or stripe. I thought it had a slightly dark, but mainly yellow, head and perhaps was tinged green on the back but, again, was mainly yellow. We couldn't work out what it was. Steve was adamant that it wasn't a Warbler and I tended to agree. More like a Vireo bill but acted like a Bunting or Finch in that it stayed motionless in the tree and later when it flew back down into the Shrubs, it just stayed in the same position for about 5 minutes. Despite picking the brains of a few locals over the internet since returning, I can't say what it was. We've ruled out Scrub Greenlet, any Yellowthroat sp and can't find a Finch that looks like it. It could have been a mainly motionless female Yellow Warbler but certainly they don't normally act like that.

Anyway, off we went to the Airport, took the car back, paid our $26 departure Tax and waited for 3 more hours for our plane to take off. Fairly boring it was too but at least we got our list for the day sorted out and written up in Steve's book. We flew to Miami and knew that we would again have to go through Immigration before getting back onto the same plane to Amsterdam. Only this time, I had a surprise in store. Having handed over my passport and cards, I was asked to stand against the wall [good shooting opportunity?] and was immediately whisked away along a corridor, through security doors and into the immigration room, which held a number of people who looked as though they could have been there for some time. It was 12.10am by now and the flight left at 1am. After 15 minutes of nothing, I was called over to one of the hatches and asked whether I had ever broken the law in America. Well, I might have called a couple of dodgy Warblers at High Island and possibly sworn at the amount of insect bites I got in the Rio Grande, but they weren't getting anything out of me! However, it did seem that they thought I was someone else and pressed me on whether I knew a particular woman, who I've never heard of and probably a good thing too!

Eventually, I was asked to sit down again and with a representative from Martinair in the room [now only 25 minutes to take off!] I was beginning to think that my luggage was coming off the plane and that I was in for a long stay. Then I was called over again, given my documents and told I could go. "Thanks very much. Pleasure's all mine"[I thought, but decided to keep to myself]. If you're wondering, my name is similar to someone else's on their "Wanted" list - served me right really! Someone tell me that it couldn't be "Ronnie" after all this time.

So that was that. Up, up and away. It only took just over seven and a half hours to get back to a wet and chilly Amsterdam, where we had a [cold, in my case - remember my jumper was still in a drawer in Costa Rica] 2-hour wait for the flight to Newcastle.

And finally.Famous last [birding] words. Imagine the scene at Amsterdam Airport..

BOB -  " All that can go wrong now is that the flight to Newcastle will be delayed"

[Bob and Steve check the departure board and see that the flight is on time. They split up for half an hour and meet up later].

STEVE -  "Err, I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you."

BOB -  "Don't tell me, the flight is now delayed"

STEVE - "No, I've lost our bird list. I think it's still at San Jose Airport"


Well, would you go away with us two? We didn't actually perform very well as a birding duo although we have done pretty well to come up with a list that certainly reflects nearly everything that we saw. That shows that parts of our brains are still working!

I put most of our problems down to lack of preparation but can't explain some of the dafter acts, which are funny when they happen to someone else! We also had a bit of hard luck here and there.

From a birding point of view, Costa Rica is great and it's a mouth-watering prospect to think that despite having seen our 210 birds or thereabouts, we could return and see at least 210 different birds. A group from England had seen about 460 when we met them at Savegre Lodge. That was in a fortnight though and I think that most people would want to stay at least that long to do the place justice. That is not an option for me but I'm grateful for the opportunity to see so many fantastic birds in such a short time.

Apart from the obvious, there is little I would not do again. More time at all sites visited would have increased the number of birds we saw significantly. I found the Carara area very hot and sticky and although it is stuffed full of birds, would probably give that a miss next time and spend longer at Selva Verde, including Virgin del Sorocco. Also, the Cerro/San Gerardo valley areas merit at least two full days.

Hope you enjoyed the account. If anyone thinks I can help with any info [but not on San Jose please!] you can contact me at ""

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