Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Costa Rica 2013 Part 1

Lake Caliente, Poás Volcano
March found us once more buttoning up our RV while we would be away, engaged in another birding trip to Costa Rica. Since most of our group was comprised of members from the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club who have accompanied us on other CR tours, this trip posed a bit of a challenge to find areas that we had not previously visited. The itinerary, suggested by our good friend and guide, Richard Garrigues, focused almost exclusively on the Caribbean slope and coast. It not only provided us with opportunities for adding life birds and expanding our Costa Rica bird country list, but also to pay a call on lodges we had not yet visited. Familiar faces yet new places.
To capitalize on accrued air miles to score one free roundtrip flight, we were obliged to fly out of Austin. Sigh. Austin is a six hour drive from BPV RV Park! But, when Dennis and Kate Stalzer (blog readers will recall our April 2012 weekend bike ride adventure) who live in Austin learned of our plans, they insisted we drive up a day early and overnight at their home. Not only did they put us up for the night, they dropped us at the airport the next morning and garaged our truck at their house!

thank you Delta baggage handlers
Our two-part Delta flight included a brief layover in Atlanta where we switched planes and hooked up with Carol’s sister Marge who had flown in from Wisconsin. The evening flight to San Jose was uneventful (inflight movie “Hitchcock” - two thumbs up) until we collected our checked bags from the luggage carousel and discovered that Tom’s new rolling duffle bag had been severely damaged. It looked like one end had gone through a propellor blade. While Carol filed a claim with the Delta desk, I was invited to rummage through a limited choice of used replacement bags from a small collection Delta had behind their counter. We had absolutely no idea where these empty bags had come from but were happy to have something to use for the remainder of our trip. During the transfer of contents we also discovered that one of the tripod legs had been damaged. Back to the claims desk to collect another claims form. What would be the chances of Delta having a spare leg for a Swarovski carbon fiber tripod? Yes, that’s what we thought too. Fortunately, the damage wasn’t so severe that it prevented us from using it.
The rest of our tour group, having arrived earlier that day, were already tucked into their beds by the time we made our way into the Hotel Bougainvillea bar to celebrate our arrival. Clink! A traditional margarita toast to birding in Costa Rica.

hotel grounds
We connected with the rest of our group the next morning which included: Todd and Cindy Ward, Lynn Koss, Vicki Buchman, Greg Seegert, Jann Johnston, and Anita Friedman. Coming out of the snowy Midwest and a particularly nasty winter, they all seemed adjusted to the warm tropical climate without any adverse effects. In fact many delighted in frequently checking cold and snowy Midwest weather reports with little or no remorse.

Lynn was often heard saying, "It's not snowing!"
Rufous-naped Wrens were quite inquisitive and vocal
Sunday was spent relaxing and wandering the ten acres of hotel gardens. Having missed a year of any tropical birding, Carol and I felt a bit rusty at ID’ing tropical birds. But we were back in the ID swing of things by the time we adjourned to the bar that evening to meet up with Richard and his wife. This, our fifth trip to Costa Rica and we finally got to meet Richard’s wife! What a delightful and honored surprise!
Monday March 11 was the first official day of the tour. Following breakfast we met our driver, Didier, and boarded our tour bus for a day trip to Poás Volcano. Poás is an active stratovolcano that has erupted 39 times since 1828. We hoped it would hold off erupting again for a bit longer, at least while we were there.

Lake Botos, Poas Volcano
Blue-crowned Motmot
Due to its higher elevation there are Central Highlands birds at Poås that we wouldn’t have a chance to see anywhere else on the trip. Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Resplendent Quetzal, Mountain Elaenia, Piratic Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Sooty Thrush, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-thighed Finch, Large-footed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and Flame-colored Tanager. We found all of these plus two life birds for Carol and myself - Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher and a very, very uncooperative and skulky Wrenthrush.
Near the summit of Poás there are two lakes. The northern lake, Laguna Caliente, is one of the world’s most acidic lakes and supports little or no aquatic life. The bottom of the lake is covered with a layer of liquid sulphur causing acidic gases and fog to rise from the lake impacting the surrounding ecosystems while providing irritation to the eyes and lungs of visitors to Poás. A half hour hike took us to a second crater lake near the summit. Lake Botos, in sharp contrast to Lake Caliente, was filled with cold, clear water.
Poás was near the epicenter of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in January 2009 that severely affected surrounding villages causing massive loss of property and some lives. Because the volcano is surrounded by cloud forest, clear views of the crater are often obscured by low clouds. Fortunately for us, the skies remained clear although later in the morning as we departed, clouds had begun to descend and obscure the main caldera and views of most of the volcano.

 
Restaurant Colbert
After leaving Poás behind, Richard informed us that we would stop for lunch at the Restaurant Colbert. Carol and I clapped our hands with glee while the rest of the group quizzically peered at us. During our 2004 visit to Costa Rica, we had experienced this treasure of this small countryside restaurant on a particularly wet and rainy day due to having to cancel plans to visit the nearby La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The group quickly realized our giddy reaction was justified once we were seated and had perused the menu. No box lunches on this tour!

Carol and Joel
In addition to Colbert’s fine food, Joel, the owner and chef, had added a few new items for sale. In addition to fresh baked breads and pastries, he had developed and was marketing jars of strawberries marinated in tequila. Yum! Joel offered a jar to share at our table which elicited, for the most part, very positive reactions. Yet one more use for tequila!
Late afternoon found us back at the Hotel Bougainvillea for our evening meal, then packing for our next day’s journey to Mawamba Lodge. The lodge, located on a narrow strip of land between the main channel of the Tortuguero River and the Caribbean Sea, is reached by either a lengthy combined bus and boat ride, or, by taking a short in-country flight. We had opted for the latter in order to maximize our time at the lodge.

 
Close quarters on our Nature Air flight
In the morning we were shuttled to Aeropuerto International, Tobias Bolaños, where we would board a Nature Air aircraft bound for the small village of Tortuguero (“land of the turtles”). Because the plane was so small, we had each been limited to a 40-lb baggage limit. Taking only the essentials (bins, scopes, and yes, some clothes), the remainder of our luggage remained on our tour bus which we would reconnect with in a few days.

Vicki and Lynn
After check-in at the airport ticket counter we were treated to an in-flight safety video while we stood gathered around a small TV in the terminal...entirely in Spanish. When the pilot and copilot appeared, they walked us out to the plane and helped us board. The twin-engined plane’s route passed through a valley flanked by two volcanoes but unfortunately, views were obscured by clouds. It wasn’t until we were close to landing that the plane dropped low enough to give us our first glimpses of a landscape dotted with agricultural fields before passing over a broad section of the distinctly lush and expansive 77,000 acre Tortuguero National Park. TNP is part of the larger Tortuguero Conservation Area.

dónde está Tortuguero
approach over canals at Toruguero
launch ride to Mawamba Lodge
On the ground we were ferried via a covered launch to our lodge. After our welcoming introduction (it included a stern “please don’t go swimming in the ocean because of severe rip tides and large unfriendly animals”) we dropped our luggage in our rooms and met back at one of the lodge’s boat docks. Boarding a smaller open top boat, we took a brief ride across the main channel to a drop off point to explore the dark, warm and humid interior of a mangrove and Raphia Palm forest via a raised narrow mile long concrete path. This is the habitat preferred by Agami Heron but efforts to  spot one of these difficult to find and endangered heron failed to find any. A Uniform Crake called loudly and seemed quite close at times. It probably ventured close enough in the tangles of fallen trees and palm roots to  observe us but did not deem us worthy of a reciprocal view.
The park’s 22-mile coastal zone is nesting grounds for several species of turtles including Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback. Endangered Green Sea Turtles also use this area for breeding. Away from the beach, interior rivers and canals are home to caimans, crocodiles, Basilisk lizards and three species of monkey: Geoffery’s Spider, Mantled Howler, and White-headed Capuchin.

pool at Mawamba Lodge
our lodging in cabins
Geoffery's Spider Monkey drinking water from bromeliads
The lodge, one of several along the main river, is an international destination for tourists seeking adventure off the beaten path. The accommodations were quite comfortable. And while the food wasn’t exceptional (a buffet venue) the surrounding forest trails yielded exciting sights and sounds. Black-cowled Oriole, Dusky-faced and Golden-hooded Tanagers, White-collared Manakin, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and White-breasted Wood-Wren.

"Mind where you step," says the Iguana
Mawamba Park trail
The lodge’s “Mawamba Park” offered two enclosed butterfly gardens (one filled with Morpho butterflies), iguana and frog gardens (iguana freely roamed the grounds and especially liked hanging around the swimming pool). Outside one of the butterfly enclosures we found a Bronzy Hermit building a nest at eye level beneath a banana tree frond.

Three-toed Sloth

Bronzy Hermit
On this trip it seemed that most everywhere we hiked we came across Three-toed Sloths. And for the most part, sloths were animated rather than just lumped in a tree. Well, as animated as much as a sloth might be given they are not known for gazelle like swiftness and grace.
The best way to experience the national park was mostly through a network of freshwater creeks and lagoons. The next morning we again were scouring the aquatic landscape on a small launch, this one operated by Daryl Loth, a Canadian friend of Richard’s who owns and operates a nearby B and B (Casa Marabella). Daryl was well versed in local flora and fauna which he shared as we cruised the main river and canals which were flanked by banak, mangrove, and ceiba trees. It became readily apparent how easily it would be to become lost and disoriented.

on Daryl's boat
before entering the park all boats had to purchase a sticker
Back to the lodge for lunch and a brief afternoon break before we boarded yet another small open top boat, this one owned by the lodge. The afternoon cruise found us navigating far deeper into some of the canals, dodging overhanging branches loaded with bromeliads, at times scuffing the bottom of the boat in shallow waters. Amazon and Green Kingfishers, Great Egrets, Bare-throated and Boat-billed Herons, and both Keel-billed and Black-mandibled were everywhere. While our focus was primarily on birds we certainly enjoyed views of other wildlife, especially several monkeys representing all three species that for the most part didn’t seem to mind our presence. Stunningly bright adult male Basilisks lounged in the trees and Spectacled Caiman lurked along canal banks walled by massive buttress roots of stately canopy trees.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a Basilisk
Life birds for Carol and I would be pretty hard to come by given our multiple previous trips to Costa Rica. One bird that had eluded us - until today - was the shy, slim aquatic Sungrebe, a bird that resembles a grebe but is more closely related to the rails. I saw one as it dropped a few feet from a low overhanging tangle of branches into the water in front of our boat. As we drew closer we realized it had dropped from a nest in which a second grebe was sitting! How remarkable to get such close looks at what had been for us such a long time an elusive bird. Equally amazing was the bird’s size - quite a bit smaller than what we had imagined.


Caiman - keep your hands in the boat
on the river again
Another sought after bird by the group was the American Pygmy Kingfisher. A tiny kingfisher that sits quietly in dense foliage until it plunges head first into water to pluck out small fish or tadpoles. With a green head and back and sitting silently for long periods, they can easily be overlooked until they move. And when they move, it’s with blinding speed. We found about a half dozen during our trip with one coming to perch almost within arm’s length of the boat. What a remarkably small bird - barely five inches in length! By late afternoon we regrouped at the bar, toasted the day’s exploits and successes, enjoyed a relaxing meal then it was off to our rooms to pack for our early morning departure.

Anita and Marge toasting to all the life birds they added
plenty of options
Thursday morning we gathered our gear, met at the lodge’s boat dock and boarded a large motorized launch; large enough to accommodate other guests that were also leaving. All the luggage was loaded onto another smaller boat which would speed ahead. After a delay waiting for guests that had overslept (a young honeymoon couple who were suitably embarrassed), we were on our way.
waiting to depart Mawamba Lodge
there goes our luggage
The 90-minute ride was not without incident. The launch motored hard against a strong current through a maze of sharp turns, overhanging trees while trying to avoid sandbars and submerged snags. At one point I felt like we on a gunboat in “Apocalypse Now” speeding through the delta. Thirty minutes into the trip there was a sudden “BANG!” and the boat shuddered. A prop on one of the twin outboard engines had struck a submerged snag and been partially damaged. Steering the craft suddenly became sluggish as one of the young crew members went aft to check on the engine. The lad partially removed the engine cover but the boat was moving from side to side and bouncing too much for him to fasten it securely. Another “BANG!” as the boat struck another snag which caused the already loosened engine covers to jar lose from the lad’s grip and fly off into the river.
The boat’s captain, wishing to recover the dislodged and no doubt expensive cover, turned the boat around and retraced the route for a few miles before giving up. Headed up river once more the delay had put us behind schedule. It was quite a ride - water spraying and engines roaring while we careened around sharp bends. I’m sure everyone wondered where we might wind up if the engines couldn’t keep up with the current should we hit more snags. Still, in the midst of the wild ride, some of the group spotted Green Ibis off the port side of the boat. A life bird at between 20-25 knots!

video

Caño Blanco disembark
Our destination was the dock at Caño Blanco, nothing more than a parking lot and a shelter...”dock” being the operative word. However, when we drew within sight of where we were to disembark, there was no dock, only a steep muddy bank into which the boat buried it’s bow. Gosh, talk about feeling like we were in “The African Queen.” All the passengers gingerly baby-stepped up the muddy slope, dragging/carrying their luggage behind.
We were happy to see Didier and be back on solid ground as we struck off to find lunch and bird our way to our next destination: Almonds and Corals.



Squirrel Cuckoo
a birder's delight
White-eared Ground-Sparrow
aerial shot of agriculture
Basalisk
Social Flycatcher

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