Best of Costa Rica Mar 21—Apr 02, 2015

Posted by David Wolf


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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Even after many trips over many years we continue to be amazed by Costa Rica, so small in size but huge in possibilities! There are few other places in the world where such a diversity of birds and other wildlife can be seen so readily, in such a compact area, and our 2015 Best of Costa Rica tour took full advantage of this wealth as we roamed from one side of the country to the other. Costa Rica has done much to promote conservation, and this really paid off for us with an astounding number of birds seen on the trip, plus several mammals that are rarely encountered anywhere. More important, most of them were seen well, including many large and spectacular species that have declined over much of their ranges. We visited a wide variety of habitats and found nesting activity high and many birds in full song, all the while learning more about these wonderful tropical birds and their environments. Such is the joy of birding in Costa Rica!

Crimson-collared Tanager

Crimson-collared Tanager— Photo: David Wolf


This tour covered four very different regions, each producing its own specialties and surprises. After spotting our first birds in the hotel garden in San Jose, we travelled to the wet subtropical zone on the flanks of Volcan Poas, where at our first stop sleek Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers fed in the treetops, and a pair of well-camouflaged Emerald Toucanets came sneaking up to the forest edge right in front of us. Upon arriving at lovely Bosque de Paz we found the hummingbird feeders swarming with half-a-dozen species of these vibrant creatures, a group that we would enjoy many times on this tour. Early the next morning, as we worked on learning some of the commoner birds attracted to a fruiting tree at the lodge, a stunning Crimson-collared Tanager appeared and sat still for all to admire in the scope, looking unbelievably brilliant in the morning light. Later that day we would call up a pair of the strange-looking and unique Prong-billed Barbets, laughing as they uttered their raucous duets, throats swelling with every whoop. The day wasn’t over yet though, for after dark a family of Pacas, a large and rarely-seen nocturnal rodent, interrupted our dinner when they appeared at the feeders. On our final morning here we opted for a hike deeper into the lush forest. Birds were harder to see in this environment, but as we stood quietly watching a tiny Tufted Flycatcher, we were suddenly surprised by a pair of Resplendent Quetzals that landed above us! Many consider this bird to be the most beautiful in the world, but they can be hard to find, and we were very lucky to see them here, in an especially beautiful setting.

Prong-billed Barbet

Prong-billed Barbet— Photo: David Wolf

From the wet subtropics we drove down to the dry Pacific lowlands. As always, the partially deciduous forests of Carara National Park were incredibly birdy, with a seemingly endless array of forest birds revealing themselves. Scarlet Macaws, the signature species of this region, were regularly seen passing by both near and far, thrilling us every time that we saw them, but it wasn’t until late morning on our second day here that we were able to scope a perched pair, high above us at a potential nest hole. Prowling the forest interior introduced us to members of the antbird and woodcreeper families, both so typical of the Neotropical forests, and yielded gems like the colorful Orange-collared Manakin, a bold Black-faced Antthrush strutting around on the forest floor, and a pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds sitting motionless in the understory. Best of all was an amazing Great Tinamou that strolled down the trail just a few feet away from us, seemingly oblivious to the observers. This just doesn’t happen in very many places! Overhead in the canopy we were entertained by a large troop of Spider Monkeys slowly foraging through the trees, including one youngster that seemed especially curious about the people below, as if he wanted to play with us. Trogons were spotted too, including the scarce endemic Baird’s, a pair of Slaty-tailed working on a hole in an arboreal termite nest, and a very close male Black-throated. Later some of the group were lucky enough to see a trio of Fiery-billed Aracaris as they foraged through the trees at the lodge. A more stationary highlight here was a nest of Bare-throated Tiger-Herons with two large chicks, ridiculous-looking with their punk hairdos. A very successful afternoon boat trip on the Tarcoles River gave us a break from the forest birding and yielded 10 species of the heron family, plus four tropical kingfishers (including the hard-to-spot Pygmy), a cooperative Panama Flycatcher, and a lovely Turquoise-browed Motmot shining in the late afternoon sun, among many other birds.

Black-throated Trogon

Black-throated Trogon— Photo: David Wolf


Next it was back across the highlands to the wet Caribbean lowlands, where a spectacular morning greeted us the next day at the world-renowned La Selva Research Station. Along the entry road here it was almost impossible to know where to look first, as birds popped out all over the place in our first few hours afield. Initially our eyes were attracted to the colorful tanagers, honeycreepers, and dacnis, many of them sitting up in the bare trees in the early morning sunlight, but soon we began sorting out and learning the many confusing flycatchers, woodcreepers, and other small birds too. Even better were the “big birds” that sat still for scope views, from our first Broad-billed Motmots, toucans (who could ever tire of these spectacular birds?) and brilliant Rufous-tailed Jacamars to a lethargic White-necked Puffbird perched in a bare treetop and the uncommon Rufous-winged Woodpecker that gave us an uncommonly good study. We even had a pair of Great Green Macaws slip quietly past us for a quick look at this threatened species. Later we would have good looks at remarkably bold Great Curassows and Crested Guans, both of which have been extirpated in many areas by hunting and forest clearance, but have become a regular sight here. We ended this action-packed day with a gorgeous Rufous Motmot sitting motionless in the rainforest understory in the still of the late afternoon, big and colorful yet still very well concealed.

Black-mandibled Toucan

Black-mandibled Toucan— Photo: David Wolf


Our second day at La Selva was as productive as the first as we continued to find new species and enjoy many we had already seen. A raptor that glided into a bare tree proved to be a Hook-billed Kite when scoped, a species rarely seen this well anywhere. Nearby we watched 2 male Snowy Cotingas displaying for a female by sitting up in the bare treetops and then repeatedly swooping down and disappearing, only to be spotted again seconds later on a nearby branch. A pair of Fasciated Antshrikes gave us surprisingly good studies, while we were amazed when a tiny Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant came down from the canopy to a shrub right above us in response to its insect-like song. The ultimate sighting of the day—and of the whole trip for some of us—came as we started to leave La Selva that morning, when our local guide received a call that a Puma had been sighted nearby.  The animal had stopped moving and seemed to be staying in place, so we rushed back across the footbridge and through the lab clearing to the site, arriving in time to see it standing behind a tangle of open roots. Within moments it decided that the gathering crowd was not a threat, and proceeded to step out into the open understory, stare at the humans a bit—and then lie down in full view for at least 30 minutes!

A travel day to our final destination gave us a chance to bird the rugged Caribbean foothills a little bit, where highlights included a tiny male Black-crested Coquette and several stunning male Snowcaps danced around the verbena flowers. Inside this forest type we were lucky to encounter several mixed-flocks dominated by tanagers, some of them colorful like the Black-and-yellow and the Emerald, and others drab like the Tawny-crested and Carmiol’s, but all of them specialties of this unique zone. Then it was off to the cool highlands, arriving in the delightful Savegre Valley and a whole new environment in the late afternoon.


Puma— Photo: David Wolf


The next morning found us birding the spectacular lodge gardens and nearby woodlots, enjoying birds like the Collared Redstart, Flame-throated Warbler, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and Yellow-thighed Finch while searching for that ultimate prize, the Resplendent Quetzal. We never had a group sighting of it today, but some were able to watch a pair that was hanging around a potential nest site in a dead stump. Birds are generally not as abundant in the highlands as in the lowlands, but a high percentage of those present are endemic to this small region, which barely extends into western Panama, and this afternoon we drove back up to the high country to find more of these specialties. In the stunted paramo shrubs at over 10,000 ft. elevation the very range-restricted Volcano Junco hopped up to us within minutes of our arrival, proving itself to be a very entertaining bird, while nearby we found strange Large-footed Finches, enjoyed the musical song of the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and waited patiently to see all of the colors of a Fiery-throated Hummingbird light up. All of these birds are unique to this region.

Our final morning afield began with a successful pre-breakfast search for the Spotted Wood-Quail in the nearby woodlot, finding a well-concealed but calm pair with tiny chicks. Again, this is a member of a group that is notoriously difficult to see in most places. We then made a hike through the magnificent old-growth oak forest, highlighted by a long study of a pair of rarely-seen Ochraceous Pewees at a nest site. And then there were those quetzals for everyone, several males and a female feeding in a fruiting tree. When the female finally left the area, she had two males hot on her tail as they disappeared back into the forest. All too soon it was time to head back to San Jose, our grand tour of some of the best birding areas in Costa Rica complete.