Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Costa Rica 23nd December 2002 to 13th January 2003,
This is a report of a trip to Costa Rica, which I'd originally planned for August 2002. However, a change in plans meant we instead went over Christmas and new year, which increased the cost but got us a lot of North American migrants.
Costa Rica was great - I saw 409 species, of which 297 were lifers. However, it was the quality rather than the quantity that made it so good. Highlights included Yellow-billed Cotinga, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Great Curassow, Northern Royal Flycatcher, Great Green and Scarlet Macaws and many others.
However, most places we visited did not seem very birdy and sometimes it felt like we were working hard for every single bird. Having said that, when we came to do the trip list each evening I was always surprised at just how many species we'd seen (often twice what I would have estimated). Another thing that surprised me was that we saw almost no birds at all when we were traveling between sites.
As this trip has been so long in the planning, I've had time to do a lot of research and preparation. The main resources used were as follows:
Thank you very much to all the people who responded to my request on BirdChat for information on Costa Rica. The replies I received were very helpful in refining my plans.
This was not a cheap trip as we stayed in good accommodation for the entire trip and used the services of Costa Rica Gateway (www.costaricagateway.com). Costa Rica Gateway made all of the hotel bookings and arranged for drivers to take us to and from each site. They also had a driver waiting for us at San Jose airport even though we arrived a day late. The arrangements worked perfectly - all of the drivers were very safe and reliable and knew short cuts to get us out of heavy traffic in San Jose. All spoke at least a little English and two of them had a decent knowledge of birds and were happy to stop for anything of interest. We were very well looked after in Costa Rica and we would definitely use Costa Rica Gateway again.
Costa Rica Gateway have a number of suggested itineraries but I basically said where I wanted to go and they made all the arrangements. Unfortunately we visited the sites in an order that made for a lot of driving, but the main reason is that Sean only came for half of the trip and we wanted him to see a good variety of places and avoid the hottest and most humid, hence leaving Carara and La Selva until the second half.
Problems and annoyances
The only thing that went wrong on this trip was the flights. Our KLM flight from London to Amsterdam was nearly two hours late, which meant we missed our connection to San Jose. KLM staff were generally unhelpful and unsympathetic but eventually they got us on a flight to New York. We ended up staying in a motel at JFK airport on what was supposed to be our first night in Costa Rica, before flying to San Jose next morning with the Costa Rican airline, Lacsa (which seemed much friendlier and more reliable than KLM). Of course our luggage didn't arrive with us in New York, and after spending a lot of money on phone calls to KLM we still didn't find anyone willing to help us (note that it's not possible to make calls to Europe on most pay phones in Costa Rica). Interestingly the only transfer counter with a long queue of disgruntled customers, both in Amsterdam and New York, was the one for KLM! Anyway, we eventually got one of our bags back two weeks into the holiday and the other two weeks after we got home.
Mosquitoes, chiggers, etc weren't a big problem. We both got bitten a few times but then we hardly used insect repellent at all. We didn't see any live poisonous snakes but a number of fer-de-lances were seen by other people while I was at La Selva, and we also saw a couple of dead Coral Snakes on the roads.
23rd December 2002 - Hotel Bougainvillea
We arrived at the Hotel Bougainvillea in Heredia (near San Jose) late morning on the 23rd and left early on the 24th. The landscaped gardens were reasonably birdy and we saw quite a few common species there. The main bird to look for at the Bougainvillea is Prevost's Ground-Sparrow, and we got great views of one at the back of the vegetable garden on the first afternoon. The vegetable garden is on the far right at the back of the hotel. Surprisingly we didn't see White-eared Ground-Sparrow, which is supposed to be more common than Prevost's here.
24th - 26th December 2002 - Tortuguero
We were collected by Osvaldo Padilla, our excellent birding guide in Tortuguero, from Hotel Bougainvillea on the morning of the 24th. I'd booked Osvaldo's services and a private boat for our time in Tortuguero, which turned out to be a very good move. It was quite a long journey to Tortuguero, much of which was over rough roads through banana plantations, with the last bit being by boat.
We were supposed to have had three nights at Laguna Lodge, but due to our missed flights we only had two. That gave us one full day there, plus the first afternoon we arrived and early the final morning. Whilst it was a wonderful place where I would have liked to spend more time, thanks to Osvaldo we got all the species I was hoping for there, with the exception of Great Curassow (which I saw in La Selva).
We spent the first afternoon birding around Laguna Lodge, including along a trail into some woodland and out the other side onto the beach. The next day was spent on the boat, as was the final morning, when we got a small amount of birding in on the way back to the jetty.
Most of the birding in Tortuguero involved exhilarating speedboat rides down the main channel and then going through the small canals looking for birds - great fun! Highlights included Sungrebe (excellent and very close views), three White-necked Puffbirds, which are not easy to see as they tend to perch at the top of very tall trees, an unexpected Snowy Cotinga (first of four on the trip as it turned out), the closest views possible of a beautiful immature Agami Heron, nine Boat-billed Herons, Great Green Macaws (we had an interesting time going under fallen branches in the boat following the sound of their calls until we could see them!), Green-and-rufous Kingfishers, a Western Slaty Antshrike, a pair of very gorgeous and extremely obliging Chestnut-coloured Woodpeckers and a Cinnamon Woodpecker.
However, the best experience at Tortuguero, and maybe the best thing we saw on the trip, was baby Green Turtles making their way to the sea. December is very late for the turtles to be hatching, but there were a few late nests and we were lucky. Osvaldo was able to tell where a nest contained recently hatched turtles, and on our first afternoon, after quite a bit of searching he found one that still had three babies in it, two alive and one dead. These will have been the ones laid first, which were at the bottom of the pile and didn't have the strength to get themselves out. However, when we'd dug down to them one of them got out and made its way to the sea without a problem. The other seemed very weak and probably hasn't survived. Anyway, the best was still to come as just as it was starting to get dark and we were nearly back at the lodge, Osvaldo found a full nest where the babies had almost finished making their way out. He dug a ramp for them and we watched as 110 baby turtles made their way out of the nest, down the beach and into the sea. A really magical experience!
Laguna Lodge is one of a number of lodges along the river near Tortuguero National Park. It was a great place to stay with great food (albeit served a little late in the evening for jetlagged birders!). There were some good birds right outside the cabins and a good trail into the forest and along the beach (access is restricted to the beach earlier in the year when the turtles are laying). The lodge is on a narrow strip of land with the Caribbean sea on one side and the river on the other. The Lodge has general activities arranged for guests, but I highly recommend booking Osvaldo and a private boat as I'm sure we would not have seen nearly as many species on the general tours.
Tortuguero isn't one of the main sites visited in Costa Rica by birders, as there are no species there that can't be found elsewhere. However, some species are much easier to see here than at other sites and it was a really beautiful place.
26th - 29th December 2002 - Monteverde
We'd originally been booked into the Hotel Fonda Vela near Monteverde Reserve, but due to a problem with the rooms there we instead stayed in the Hotel Sapo Dorado, near Santa Elena village. We were on our own at Monteverde and my efforts to arrange a birding guide while we were there weren't successful. Sapo Dorado was a great hotel, with gorgeous rooms, wonderful food and nice (if highly landscaped) grounds. However, there were no trails there and it wasn't particularly geared towards birders.
We arrived after dark on the 26th, and spent the morning
of the 27th at Monteverde Reserve. We took the bus from
We returned to the Sapo Dorado and then walked around 2km to Finca Ecologica in the afternoon. This is supposed to be a good site for Long-tailed Manakin but we didn't see or hear them. In fact Finca Ecologica was incredibly quiet and we hardly saw any birds there at all. On the way back it started raining really hard and we got absolutely drenched. After having dinner in wet clothes we resolved to free up some time next day to go shopping for a change of clothes.
Next morning we got a taxi to Santa Elena reserve, arriving just after dawn. Taxis were reasonably cheap and the staff at Santa Elena and Monteverde reserves were happy to call taxis for us when we were ready to leave. Unfortunately it was raining hard by the time we got to Santa Elena reserve, which made us even more miserable about the loss of our luggage as we had no rain jackets or umbrellas. Anyway, we still got out on the trails as soon as the rain started to ease off. The birding was quite difficult here but it was the only place we saw Black Guan (in a tree above the visitor centre where we could watch it whilst keeping dry!) and we encountered a couple of small flocks in the forest (mainly containing the more common tanager species).
We got a taxi from Santa Elena reserve to Santa Elena village and found a general store where we managed to get some essentials. I could now comb my hair for the first time in nearly a week, we had three pairs of trousers between us and we both had new t-shirts - luxury!
After lunch we sat in the sun outside our cabin at the Sapo Dorado (which was one of the furthest ones from the main building). We'd intended to go out again in the afternoon but the birding was so good from where we were sat that we didn't bother. There were a huge number of birds in the scrub at the top of the slope not far from our cabin, and a number of birds in the small trees right in front of us. We stayed out until it started to get dark and we were still seeing new species. One nice surprise was a Cedar Waxwing, and another species we saw there and nowhere else was Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. There were also Chestnut-capped and Yellow-throated Brush-finches. Elsewhere in the grounds we got Chiriqui Quail-Dove (walking along the path near our cabin on the last morning), Elegant Euphonia, and Emerald Toucanet (in the big tree outside the restaurant). I'd expected Emerald Toucanets to be quite common at higher elevations but that was the only one we saw.
We spent our last morning in the Monteverde area at Finca Ecologica, and if anything we saw even less than on our first visit. However, the sight of a big group of Coatimundi on the roof made the walk worthwhile!
The main reason for including Monteverde in the itinerary was that I thought it would give us our best chance of seeing Three-wattled Bellbird. However, what I hadn't appreciated was that at this time of year (and at least until February) they are at lower elevations and are more likely to be seen at Carara. Many people also visit Monteverde for Resplendant Queztals. Again they are not frequently seen there at this time of year, and at any time they are much more easily found in the Savegre area.
29th December 2002 - 3rd January 2003 - Rancho Naturalista
We arrived at Rancho Naturalista after dark on the 29th. We had three full days walking the trails there and one day on a hike up a nearby mountain. We really only needed three nights at Rancho but as Sean was going back on the 3rd we decided on five days so we could relax a bit. Rancho Naturalista was a great place but the birding in the forest there was very slow. It was a matter of finding a flock, which wasn't easy, and even then most of the flocks were small. I was also disappointed that the view from the verandah into the valley was mostly of pastures not forest. The hummingbird feeders were great though.
Guiding is included in a visit to Rancho, and the current bird guide, Frederick, was very good. However, as he was the only guide there at the time, he tended to take the newest arrivals out, mainly onto the parts of the trails closest to the lodge, which didn't always fit our plans. However, we still managed to have one and a half day's guided birding at Rancho, mostly without other guests.
In addition we also managed to arrange for Frederick to take us up a nearby mountain where Sharpbill, Lovely Cotinga and Rufous-rumped Antwren have been seen. This was quite a steep and muddy hike but well worth the effort. We didn't see the Sharpbill or the Cotinga but we got a male and female Rufous-rumped Antwren as well as Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and a number of higher altitude species not normally seen at Rancho, including Black-bellied Hummingbird, Green-fronted Lancebill, Sulphur-winged Parakeet and Golden-bellied Flycatcher. It would be worth trying to arrange this hike well in advance as Frederick would not have been able to take us if there had been other guests at Rancho that day who wanted to be guided on the trails.
The three main target birds at Rancho are Snowcap, Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Snowcap was one of the first birds I saw from the balcony on the first morning, and it was very easily seen at the hummingbird feeders in the forest. Tawny-chested Flycatcher was around the gorge just inside the forest, but was pretty hard to see. Frederick found me four of them before I actually got onto one (my tendency to get over excited and not follow the directions properly didn't help!) and then on the very last morning I came across another one on my own. Other great birds here were an immature male Black-crested Coquette, which was visiting the flowers by the lodge on a regular basis, Immaculate Antbird, Checker-throated Antwren, White-throated Crake (which often bathed in the small pool in the garden at lunchtimes), Grey-headed Piprites, Black-throated and Whistling Wrens. We didn't see or hear Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, which is most often seen on the Upper Trail.
After Rancho we managed to squeeze in an hour and a half at Tapanti in the rain on the way to taking Sean to the airport. Predictably we didn't see much at Tapanti in such a short time, but one of two lifers there was a completely unexpected Ochre-breasted Antpitta on the Arboles Caidos 2km trail that starts on the left side of the road. We started walking the trail without a lot of hope as it was the middle of the day and raining quite hard. After some time we'd still only seen two Common-bush Tanagers and heard a Bananaquit so we decided to turn back. We hadn't gone very far when we saw some movement to the side of the path and I spotted the tiny antpitta perched on a low twig just behind a fallen tree. It stayed there a while before turning round and disappearing - a wonderful surprise!
Our driver then took us up beyond the picnic area to a restricted area that he has permission to drive. We birded from the van and quickly found a mixed flock of mainly tanagers. It included a gorgeous Red-headed Barbet (the first of only two on the trip) and a couple of Golden-browed Chlorophonias. After that we had to head off to the airport. It would definitely have been worth spending more time in Tapanti.
I was sad to say goodbye to Sean at the airport as he'd enjoyed the holiday and wished he'd been able to stay on longer, which is definitely a good sign although he still insists that he's not a birder!
3rd - 6th January 2003 - Carara area via Tapanti
I arrived at Tarcol Lodge after dark. A couple who we'd met at Rancho were there and it was great to see some familiar faces. However, they were leaving early next morning and for the rest of the time there I was the only guest. I was well looked after though by Freddy Madrigal, who is a really excellent birding guide, and John Erb, the owner of Tarcol Lodge, Rancho Naturalista and Costa Rica Gateway. Freddy is a freelance guide who has his own tour company, www.falcontourscr.com, and guides in Costa Rica and elsewhere in the region.
Tarcol Lodge is quite rustic and is certainly not a luxury hotel. There is one shared bathroom although there are plans to make some of the rooms en-suite. The food was very good and the location by the mud flats was great for watching waders and shorebirds. It is quite an expensive place to stay but well worth the price for the excellent guiding. The only thing I didn't like about Tarcol Lodge was the fact that one of the neighbours has a very loud dog that seemed to bark all night long.
I had two full days in the Carara area, which wasn't really enough. Three full days would have been ideal. Anyway, we spent the first morning on the excellent river trail at Carara, that afternoon on the loop (headquarters) trail at Carara and the second morning on the track above Villa Lapas and birding in the Villa Lapas grounds. For the last afternoon I opted to have another go at the loop trail rather than a boat trip into the mangroves (which would have been very expensive for one person). Ideally I would have liked another half day on the river trail at Carara and time to do a boat trip into the mangroves.
All of the birding in Carara was excellent. I got most of the species I was hoping for (except the mangroves specialties), plus a few I hadn't expected. However, I missed Baird's Trogon, which is often seen at Carara, and Streak-chested Antpitta. I also didn't get a satisfactory look at Long-tailed Manakin, and Three-wattled Bellbird was only heard distantly. The couple who left the morning after I arrived had seen Turquoise Cotinga, Baird's Trogon and all of the mangrove specialties (they took the boat trip into the mangroves).
The River Trail is a long and quite wide track and the birding there is excellent. Unfortunately part of this unique and not particularly large national park was given to local people for banana plantations by a politician looking for votes, which means that trucks frequently pass up and down the river trail from the main road to the plantations.
Highlights on the River Trail included a stunning Yellow-billed Cotinga that flew into the top of a high tree right above us. Freddy managed to get the scope onto it and I got a superb view despite the awkward angle. We also saw a Northern Royal Flycatcher, which fanned its crest briefly in display as it flew in and landed very close to us on a branch just above the path. It then sat preening for ages, giving fantastic views. A Black-bellied Wren that was calling in a low tangle took some time to show itself but when it did it was pretty obliging - another really gorgeous bird. We saw quite a few trogons along the trail, but not the hoped for Baird's. We also heard Long-tailed Manakins and one flew across the path but it was so fast it was just a blur and certainly not a tickable view.
We returned to Tarcol Lodge for lunch, where there were plenty of Mangrove Black Hawks, a few shorebirds and lots of herons, egrets, pelicans, frigatebirds, etc.
We spent the afternoon on the excellent Loop Trail at Carara. We also spent the next afternoon there. The first part of the loop trail is through quite open habitat, and we got a few Euphonias and a Canivet's Emerald there. Other highlights over the two visits included several very obliging Ruddy Quail-Doves, great views of a Golden-naped Woodpecker, a couple of Black-faced Antthrushes, a couple of Great Tinamous, four gorgeous Riverside Wrens, which after a short wait gave superb views as they foraged in the understory, and a male Orange-collared Manakin displaying on its own at a lek site. Streak-chested Antpitta is often seen on this trail, but unfortunately we didn't see or hear one. When we got back to the trailhead there were a few Lesser Nighthawks flying above the field on the other side of the road.
Next morning we birded the winding track above Hotel Villa Lapas to look for some of the drier country birds. This was another very birdy area, and we started off by watching Scarlet Macaws flying below us and White-faced Capuchins drinking water out of large flowers.
Anyway, we'd not been there long when we heard something calling softly in the undergrowth on the bank at the side of the track. After some time of failing to see even the slightest bit of movement under the vegetation, Freddy said the only thing he could think it could be was a Lesser Ground Cuckoo, even though they're not normally seen in that area. So of course I became even more desperate to see the bird. Anyway, it was finally looking hopeful as the sound was moving in the direction of a bare area of ground on the bank. However, the calling stopped for a few seconds only to start again on the other side! But then we heard movement in the undergrowth and saw a beautiful Lesser Ground Cuckoo appear in a small bush in full view near the top of the bank. It then stayed there calling for ages so I got fantastic scope views and could study it for as long as I liked. This was bird of the trip for me as it was absolutely stunning - and made even better by the fact that it was totally unexpected and it took so long to show itself!
From the track above Villa Lapas we also saw two soaring King Vultures, a Grey Hawk and a Double-toothed Kite. We then spent some time birding the grounds at Villa Lapas. In the forest we got a Long-billed Starthroat, a Steely-vented Hummingbird and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Closer to the cabins we got great views of several Fiery-billed Aracaris close to a nest hole.
After lunch Freddy showed me the roosting Pacific Screech-Owls close to Tarcol Lodge, and then we went along a track and into some mangroves for Stripe-headed Sparrows. It took a little while to find them but I then got excellent views. After that we returned to the Loop Trail at Carara.
We left Tarcol Lodge quite early on the 6th. As there were no more guests at Carara for a few days John drove Freddy, me and some of the staff to San Jose, where I was then collected by Mr Chacon senior to go to Savegre. On the way to San Jose we had a short stop in Orotina so I could get some cash (no problem at all with the cashpoint, which even gave me a choice of dollars or colones) and look at the Black-and-white Owls in the town square. The square is quite small with a few trees and lots of people, but it's incredibly birdy. Freddy found the two gorgeous Black-and-white Owls very quickly and we then had a look for Cinnamon Hummingbird. However, John was keen to get moving so we only had a short time there and didn't manage to get the hummingbird. I did however see my only White-winged Doves of the trip, together with several warblers, a Hoffmann's Woodpecker and a few of the more common flycatchers.
6th - 9th January 2003 - Savegre and Cerro de la Muerte
I got to Savegre Lodge near Cerro de la Muerte at lunchtime on the 6th. The lodge was really nice and very quiet, with comfortable cabins and plenty of birds right outside. It's set in a beautiful valley with a small river nearby. There are some landscaped gardens and several trails at various elevations. Savegre Lodge is about 8km down into the valley off the Pan-American Highway (the turn off is at around KM 80). There are a lot of really great birds around Savegre, and it is easy to arrange a half-day at higher elevations to find the small number of species that occur there but not at Savegre.
Anyway, I spent the first afternoon exploring the grounds on my own. I got Scintillant and Magnificent Hummingbirds and Slaty Flowerpiercer very quickly on the flowers outside the restaurant, where I also saw Volcano Hummingbird later on. I also saw a very obliging Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush on the grass just behind my cabin (near to the river).
I walked through the gardens and the picnic area and into the forest, where I had a couple of tanager flocks. The area of trees between the cabins and the picnic area was also very birdy and Resplendant Quetzals are quite often seen there (but not by me!).
I had booked Marino Chacon (via Costa Rica Gateway) for two morning's guided birding at Savegre, but fortunately he was also available to guide me in the afternoons on both days. We did two of the high trails above the lodge, the trail I'd done on the first afternoon, and a half-day trip to Cerro de la Muerte for the higher altitude species.
On the morning of the 7th we went to a site for Resplendant Quetzal. I saw several males and a couple of females very well. They are really stunning birds and seeing the males flying with their long tails streaming behind them was just incredible. I also got several Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers there. After that we birded one of the higher trails above the lodge and I got a number of lifers including Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, Large-footed Finch, Streak-breasted Woodhaunter and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper. We also heard Silvery-fronted Tapaculo a number of times but didn't see one.
In the afternoon we did the lower trail that I'd started on the previous afternoon. The highlight here was two gorgeous Zeledonias that responded to the tape and after a while showed really well. The Zeledonia is supposed to be even more skulky and difficult than the Tapaculo so I was delighted to see two of them so well. Unfortunately though we couldn't find a responsive Tapaculo despite hearing several quite close. Both the Zeledonia and the Tapaculo like very dense vegetation close to streams.
Next morning we headed up towards Cerro de la Muerte, with a few stops on the way. The main stop was at Restaurant Asca, a new restaurant about 4km off the Pan American Highway on the road to Savegre. The restaurant hasn't opened yet but they have some really wonderful trails that can be birded for a small fee. Whilst Marino was talking to the owner I got two lifers - a Black-billed Nightingale-thrush foraging on the ground about a metre from my feet, and a Sooty Robin that flew into a tree very close to me.
Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge has been seen near to the restaurant and as soon as Marino played the tape one responded pretty close to us. We went down onto the trail to try to get a better angle for it but it didn't respond again and unfortunately we didn't see it. However, a few seconds later there was movement close to the path and a gorgeous Buff-fronted Quail-Dove walked right out into the open about five metres in front of us and stayed there for a couple of minutes - superb. Marino said he's never seen one that well. After climbing through the vegetation for half an hour trying to get closer to one that we'd heard calling at Savegre the previous morning I thought we deserved it!
We also got a number of other great birds on the trails at Asca, particularly when we came across quite a large mixed flock, which included Ochraceous Pewee, Barred Becard, Yellow-winged Vireo, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, various tanagers and wood warblers and a female Resplendant Quetzal. We also heard but didn't see Silvery-fronted Tapaculo.
When we reached the intersection with the Pan American Highway we had another stop to look for Fiery-throated Hummingbirds in the vegetation opposite the junction along the side of the main road. We found two Fiery-throated Hummingbirds very quickly. They look very dark until they catch the light and the bright throat becomes visible. I also got a very good view of a Peg-billed Finch here. It was already much colder than at Savegre, and when we got up to Cerro de la Muerte it was colder still. The view from there was superb thought - looking down into the clouds in the valley!
Our target birds at Cerro de la Muerte were Volcano Junco and Timberline Wren. Marino played the tape for the wren in some bushes close to a building there, and there was no response. We were just turning round to try somewhere else when I caught sight of some movement - the wren had come right in without calling and was showing really well very close to us. We then moved closer to the building to look for Volcano Junco, getting superb views of another Peg-billed Finch on the way. There were four or five Juncos on the ground close to the building so we didn't even need to look for them.
After that we returned to the lodge for lunch and later in the afternoon we went up onto the higher trails above the lodge to try for Silvery-throated Jay and to keep trying for the Tapaculo. Unfortunately it was very windy and we didn't see or hear the jay. In fact there weren't many birds about at all, but we did get amazing views of an Ochraceous Pewee that was flycatching and kept returning to the same perch close to the path. We had a really good try for Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and eventually one came up to the top of the bank by the path, showed as a small dark silhouette for about half a second and then disappeared. Unfortunately not a tickable view. By that time it was almost dark so we went back to the vehicle for spotlights and Marino played the tapes for Dusky Nightjar and Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. We didn't even hear the nightjar, but a Screech-Owl called pretty close, although unfortunately we didn't manage to see it.
I had a couple of hours birding on my own on my final day at Savegre, before I was collected to go to La Selva. I spent the time looking for Black-thighed Finch, Buffy Tuftedcheek and Barred Parakeet on the lower trail and in the gardens. I didn't see or hear any of those species, but I did get a really good mixed flock a short way into the forest, which included a Streak-breasted Treehunter. At one point I saw something crawling mouse-like in the undergrowth and got hopeful that I was finally about to see a Tapaculo - unfortunately though it actually was a mouse!
When I was almost back at the lodge I saw Marino with a couple who'd just arrived who he was guiding that day. They had another good flock and I got my last lifer at Savegre - a Brown-capped Vireo.
9th - 13th January 2003 - La Selva Research Station via Virgen del Socorro
Mauricio, who's a naturalist guide and a pretty good birder as well as a driver for Costa Rica Gateway, drove me to La Selva. On the way there we stopped at a couple of places in the Virgen del Socorro area. The first was La Paz falls, where I wanted to look for Sooty-faced Finch. As soon as I opened the car door I could hear one singing in the damp vegetation at the side of the road, and I was able to see it well as it moved about in the undergrowth. We then went to the Chinchona Restaurant, which has several hummingbird feeders and some bird tables with fruit. For a one dollar donation you can watch the hummers, tanagers and a few other species. The main hummingbird I was hoping for here that I'd not seen elsewhere was Brown Violetear. Unfortunately I didn't see one, although there were plenty of other species, including a Black-bellied Hummingbird, several beautiful Violet Sabrewings, Green Thorntails and Coppery-headed Emeralds. It was also great to see species like Prong-billed Barbet, Crimson-collared Tanager and Silver-throated Tanager close up and right out in the open on the bird tables.
It was raining very hard by the time I arrived at La Selva. I got settled into my room, which was a basic dormitory with six bunks (although I had it to myself for the four nights I was there). I hung around for a short while hoping that the rain would ease off, but my desire to get out birding was too strong so I decided to explore a bit. I crossed the bridge and went into the forest, not expecting very much in such bad weather. So I was very pleased to see two Great Tinamous by the path, and a couple of Chestnut-backed Antbirds a bit further on. There wasn't a lot else in the forest but the more open areas were a little more productive, and I saw a Grey-headed Kite from the bridge, which flew into a tree by the river.
Next morning I was booked on a general tour, which I think was compulsory for people staying at La Selva if they wanted to walk the trails on their own. The tour was not great for birding as there were about 10 people on it and the guide definitely wasn't a birder. The two frogs he pointed out disappeared before I could see them and the only new thing for me was a bullet ant (which looks as ferocious as it apparently is!). So I was pretty miserable about wasting potential birding time (and getting absolutely soaked as it was still pouring down). However, when we finally started back over the bridge one of the other people on the tour pointed out a bird on the river close to the bank - my second Sungrebe of the trip!
In the afternoon I had a wander up the entrance road and, despite the continuing rain I saw some good birds until it got really torrential. Highlights included Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons and a Pink-billed Seedfinch (either a female or an immature male). I also spent some time watching a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers - one of them stayed so still for so long that I started to wonder if it was real, and the other was in a hole in a dead snag. I saw one or both of these birds in the same area every time I walked that way. One evening however, one of them seemed quite agitated and was moving round the outside of the hole drumming every few seconds. It soon became apparent that something else was in the hole. I think it must have been a Collared Aracari as all I could see was the tip of what looked to be a very thick bill. Eventually the woodpecker gave up and flew off.
I booked a half-day's birding with Erick Castro for the next morning, and whilst it was still raining it wasn't nearly as bad as the previous day. Erick proved to be an excellent guide. We walked along the entrance road and then back to the canteen via a track that runs almost parallel to the entrance road. Erick said that this is a good place for Little and Slaty-breasted Tinamous, which don't go into the more closed forest. In the two and a half hours from dawn to 8am I got several new birds, including Plain-coloured Tanager (I really don't think I'd have identified it if I'd found it on my own as it was grayish and even plainer than it appears in the field guide), a female Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, an unexpected Hooded Warbler, a Scaled Pigeon and several Black-faced Grosbeaks. I also got scope views of a Snowy Cotinga and saw a Semi-plumbeous Hawk that had just caught a large flycatcher. Unfortunately the half day's birding finished at 8am (I thought it had seemed surprisingly cheap) and Erick wasn't available to guide me the next morning and didn't seem to be available later in the day either.
I birded the entrance road and the track several more times during my stay at La Selva, and after hearing Little Tinamous a number of times close to the track I eventually got lucky early one morning when one crossed the path behind me and I chose to look round at exactly the right moment! I also saw a pair of Chestnut-coloured Woodpeckers and a Mourning Warbler along the track.
I also spent some more time in the forest. I had thought that when it finally stopped raining the forest would be full of bird flocks, but in fact the first afternoon proved to be far better than any subsequent visit. The only other species of note that I saw in the forest were a Broad-billed Motmot and some Buff-rumped Warblers. There were also a few Wood Thrushes, Collared Aracaris and Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, but not much else.
On my last full day at La Selva I went on a morning boat trip as I thought it was probably my best chance of seeing Sunbittern. The boat trip was very general and not all that great, especially since the other passengers were a large family that included a young man who spent the whole time doing very loud animal impressions (mostly cows), the father who was chain smoking some really noxious cigars and the mother who was chain smoking cigarettes. Anyway, the whole trip was made worthwhile when we came to a Sunbittern walking on the sand at the side of the river. No-one else seemed to think it was anything special and we didn't stop for nearly as long as I would have liked, but it was a fantastic bird - even more beautiful than I'd expected.
When I got back to La Selva I saw Erick who told me that he and Freddy Madrigal, who was there guiding another couple, had just seen what was almost certainly a Spot-fronted Swift. Erick also told me I was lucky to have seen a Sunbittern on the boat trip as they're not often seen on that stretch of river. Later I saw Freddy who told me he'd seen a Great Curassow ten minutes ago on the other side of the bridge. I ran across there and found it right in the open exactly where he'd said - a beautiful male, even bigger and more spectacular than I'd expected.
Anyway, overall La Selva was a great place, but I didn't do nearly as well there as expected. With hindsight I should have tried to book more time with Erick Castro, who's actually just started working freelance and guides at La Selva and elsewhere in the area. He can be contacted on 766 7039 or 831 2583, email email@example.com.
13th January 2003 - Braulio Carillo National Park
My final day in Costa Rica was spent birding at Braulio Carillo with Freddy Madrigal. We started at the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station, which is right on the Pan American Highway. As soon as we got out of the car we could hear a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl calling, but it was very hard to judge the direction of the sound as it kept being drowned out by the noise of the lorries passing on the road. We spent a short time birding in the parking area, and not seeing very much, before Freddy asked the rangers if we could go onto the trails early and pay later. They agreed and we started up the trail behind the ranger station.
The birding there was excellent with some really huge flocks of tanagers and woodcreepers. I got good views of all of the tanagers I'd been hoping for (White-throated Shrike, Blue-and-gold, Tawny-crested, Black-and-yellow, Emerald and Speckled), as well as Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-whiskered Puffbird, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Red-headed Barbet and Brown-billed Scythebill. However, the only antbird we saw was Russet Antshrike - there were quite a lot of them with the tanagers, and the tanager-like behaviour confused me at first.
After we'd finished the trail we went to look for a Great Potoo that Freddy had been told about but had not yet seen. We arrived at the site, which was on some private land, and started walking through a field to the trees where it had been seen. We hadn't gone far when we saw a Snowy Cotinga fly past, looking absolutely gorgeous against the blue sky. Freddy then spotted the Great Potoo as soon as we got to the trees. It took me a bit longer even though it was very large and in full view! This was my last lifer of the trip, and a really fantastic bird to finish on!
After that we had lunch at a very nice restaurant nearby. When we got back to Quebrada Gonzalez, Mauricio was already there to take me to the airport. However, as it was still some time before my flight Freddy agreed to bird with me for a bit longer and we crossed the road onto another trail. As soon as we got onto the trail we found army ants, and I started to get hopeful that we might see a good flock of antbirds. However, just as I was brushing the ants off my legs the heavens opened and we had to try and shelter as best we could under a large tree. In the end we didn't see (or hear) any antbirds, but we did see a gorgeous White Hawk perched high in a tree above the trail. We also saw a couple more tanager flocks before I had to head off for the airport.