Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals Feb 02—10, 2013

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Costa Rica continues to amaze us, even after many trips over many years. There is such an astounding wealth of things for the naturalist to see and do in this small, efficient, bird-friendly country! We took full advantage of this abundance for an action-packed week of birding, enjoying the spectacular scenery and fabulous vegetation almost as much as the birds. We hiked roads and forest interior trails in three very different environments, from the Caribbean lowlands to the high temperate mountains, and learned about each as we went along. Every day brought highlights, and by the end of the week we had seen some of the most special birds of Central America, plus members of most of the Neotropical families. Just as important, we saw them well—and we had fun while doing so!

An exhilarating first day en route to the lowlands took us to the lovely La Paz Waterfall Garden, where brilliant Crimson-collared and Silver-throated tanagers greeted us before we had even left the entry building, and ten species of hummingbirds swarmed the feeders, including such goodies as Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and Magenta-throated Woodstar (all of limited range). A pair of weird Prong-billed Barbets gave their wild duet for us, a brilliant male Golden-winged Warbler eventually showed itself to all, and a pair of Golden-bellied Flycatchers came down from the canopy to bathe in a rushing stream inside the beautiful forest. Downslope, a stop at a grove of brilliant Erythrina trees in bloom produced our first parrots and oropendolas, feeding on the flowers. By the end of the day we had seen nearly 100 species, and this was just the beginning.

Our first day in the lowlands began with a deafening pre-dawn wakeup call from the howler monkeys, and then it was off to the world-famous La Selva Field Station. We began along the entry road and it wasn’t long before we had seen such top-quality birds as Semiplumbeous Hawk and Rufous-tailed Jacamar in the scopes. A mixed-flock with a confusing parade of 5 species of woodpeckers took a while to sort out, but I’m not sure we ever got all of the flycatchers present sorted out. Thankfully we had great birds like a pair of Blue Ground-Doves and a male Snowy Cotinga to distract us. Mimi’s amazing eyes found us a Mexican Hairy Porcupine hidden in a bromeliad clump and then a two-toed sloth was spotted in the same tree. Welcome to the Neotropics!

The next day again found us along the entry road, where 3 Great Green Macaws flew right overhead in good light and then a female Great Curassow paraded out into the open for us. Later that morning, inside the heavy forest, a male curassow strolled out onto the path, and late in the afternoon another male calmly fed on guavas right next to the cafeteria while several dozen amazed observers watched and took photos. This just doesn’t happen elsewhere! Other highlights of the day included a pair of Black-throated Trogons, the female digging at a nest site while the male guarded her, and a chunky White-whiskered Puffbird sitting right over the trail. We ended with a rousing chorus from the Black-mandibled Toucans, finally spotting several as they came down to feed in a fruiting tree. During our final morning here we filled in some blanks, including a wonderful look at a scarce Pied Puffbird, and a confusing juvenile-plumaged Gray-headed Kite that challenged the leaders to identify it. An afternoon stroll at La Quinta produced a puzzling scene when at least 17 species of “mini-birds” came to investigate something hiding in a bromeliad clump in an otherwise bare and exposed tree. The birds gave us great looks, but we never spotted what was upsetting them. A snake perhaps?

Our travel day into the mountains produced Fasciated Tiger-Herons along a rocky stream, several Snowcaps and a spectacular male Black-crested Coquette in a flower garden, and an amazingly responsive pair of Dull-mantled Antbirds literally at our feet. As we neared our lodge in the deep Savegre Valley, near pandemonium broke out in the bus when Maria and Mimi spotted our first quetzals, a pair sitting next to a potential nest site right beside the road! As we piled out of the bus and set up scopes, they just quietly sat there at close range, a rare opportunity to enjoy at length what some consider to be the most beautiful bird in the world.

The next two days in the mountains produced more quetzal sightings and a wide variety of the highland endemics of this region, including a Black Guan feeding on avocado-like fruits in a tree over the lodge restaurant, a huge flock of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers roaming through the forest, the weird Buffy Tuftedcheek disappearing in and out of the canopy epiphytes, “ooh-ah” Flame-throated Warblers, Large-footed Finches and Timberline Wrens skulking in the bamboo, and Volcano Juncos that came running up to the bus—and seemed to enjoy the granola crumbs we offered. All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our idyllic week in Costa Rica over but certainly not forgotten.