Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Costa Rica 2013 Part 3

2013 Costa Rica tour group photo at Rancho Naturalista
Sunday March 17. Judging from reduced decibel levels, the Mantled Howler Monkeys were still present but had moved further away from the main hotel.
After a quick birding hike out to the main road and back, we gathered for one last breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It was then that we finally realized why a Long-billed Hermit had been buzzing the buffet line from time to time for the past few days. It had been busy constructing a nest suspended from the thatched roof over the kitchen area. We watched in awe as the bird circled the nest several times, disappear, then return to repeat the maneuver. Using our binoculars, it became clear that the bird was was collecting spider webs and spinning them into the outside of the nest!

Long-billed Hermit nest fortified with spider webs
Breakfast finished and the last cups of coffee drained, we collected our baggage and trundled off to the bus. Today would be another roadside birding day as we retraced part of our route through coastal lowlands then bird our way up the Caribbean slope toward the Cordillera de Talamanca.
Our first birding stop was at a small arboretum and nature preserve. Didier deftly maneuvered our bus into the tight parking area where we disembarked. A short trail lead over a low bridge to a simple metal gate...which was locked. It would have been easy to walk around the gate but clearly the preserve was not open and we respected the closed sign. To our delight, however, we discovered several colorful poison dart frogs in the understory near the bridge.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
Green-and-black ("Harlequin") Poison Dart Frog
Red-lored Parrot
Richard instructed Didier to drive to another close by location where we parked at the bottom of a steep gravel road. Unfortunately the incline proved a bit much for some of the group who stayed at the bottom so we didn’t dally too long. But for those who walked partially up the slope we had excellent looks at a Red-lored Parrot preening on a low branch. Typically we only catch glimpses of them in small squawking flock flyovers.
About twenty minutes past the city of Limón, Didier swung off the road in the small town of Río Blanco and drove up to “Brisas de la Jungla” (The Jungle Breeze), a relatively new ecotourism facility tucked into a secondary jungle environment.
After a brief stop at the park office, Didier continued to drive us up a more narrow road toward Rancho Mirador, a summit offering views of the Caribbean coast. Clearly, zip lining was an active component of Brisas with zip lines everywhere. At the summit we found a cool breeze and discovered more poison dart frogs. We couldn’t recall any other trip to Costa Rica when we’ve found so many of these colorful jewels. As we cooled our heels at the summit, a Double-toothed Kite made an appearance giving us long looks (as well as good looks at the bird).

Central American Pygmy-Owl
Retreating back down the narrow twisting road Didier suddenly stopped and pointed up. Perched on a branch was a Central American Pygmy-Owl! How he could watch both the road and find small birds was short of miraculous. After all the time we had spent trying to coax one of these owls out at Almonds and Corals, to now have one sitting out in the open with such a clear view? Brilliant!

Brisas restaurant
hiking part way down from Rancho Mirador
Brisas had an open air restaurant which appeared to be quite busy (always a good sign). The majority of diners turned out to be a recent graduating class of students from the nearby E.A.R.T.H. University in Puerto Limón, out for a graduation celebration. Due to the presence of so many diners our food orders took quite a while to arrive. However, birding distractions made the wait seem less tedious. A stunning Snowy Cotinga displayed nicely. Then Richard heard one of our target birds calling - Black-chested Jay. The jay’s range in Costa Rica is limited to this very small corner of the country and would be one of only a few chances to find one. Unfortunately the jays failed to cooperate and never revealed themselves. After lunch we drove once more to the summit, walked and birded part way back down the road in hopes of finding a jay, but finding a jay today wasn’t to be. Back on the bus we continued as far as the city of Squirres where we turned off in in a new direction toward the city of Turrialba.

3-Toed Sloth
Another side trip. This was to try for a Painted Crake known to hang out in a large compost pile associated within a banana plantation. After traveling a few miles on a side road and passing through the plantation’s work camp (idled due to it being Sunday), we came to another gate. A locked gate. It seemed that it was our day for locked gates! Probably locked due to it being Sunday with no work being done in the fields. Too bad - a Painted Crake would have been a life bird. Ah, well. You can’t get them all.

road to Rancho
Just before crossing the Río Reventazon we changed course again passing through the small towns of La Suiza and Tuis before turning off onto the mile long road leading up to the Rancho Naturalista parking lot. As darkness fell we were assigned our rooms, quickly dealt with our luggage, then hastily gathered in the dining area which had just begun serving the evening meal. Stuffed with scrumptious food and our daily trip list recorded, Richard announced the plan for the next day as we trundled off to bed, happy to be in a somewhat cooler climate.
Notable bird ticks on the day included: Swallow-tailed Kite, White-tailed Kite, Gray-necked Wood-Rail (heard only), Pale-vented Pigeon, Gartered Trogon, Olive-throated Parakeet, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, Plain-colored Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Melodious Blackbird, Montezuma Oropendula, and Yellow-crowned Euphonia.

Rancho Naturalista Hide
female Red-throated Ant-Tanager
An early morning hike to a Hide setup close to the main lodge was the first order of business. A cloth sheet suspended beneath a covered lean-to provided a landing site for insects attracted by an overhead light left on during the night. Just before and during first light we gathered to observe insect eating birds drawn to eat the duped insects. Golden-crowned Warbler, Plain Antvireo, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, Dusky-capped and Slaty-capped Flycatchers were among the species that took advantage of the protein-rich buffet.

2nd story observation deck/commons area
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Back at the lodge we discovered fresh coffee and hot water for tea laid out on the upper observation deck, a convenient bird's-eye location to survey the many feeding stations scattered about the back terrace and gardens. Hummingbird feeders hung at a handful of locations from the upper deck that provided the next challenge - sort through the dozens of hummingbirds attracted to the feeders. Some were easy - Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Green Hermit. Immature males or females of these species and others proved a bit more difficult. Green-crowned Brilliant and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer were fewer in number so it took a bit longer for folks to get the hang of IDing either. However, two distinctive hummingbirds attracted to flowers in the garden (not to the feeders) were quite simple: Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette. They didn’t appear often but when they did they were unmistakable.

breakfast below the observation deck - binoculars required
Rancho feeding stations
Breakfast was served in the open air section of the dining area directly beneath the observation deck so binoculars at the table were a must. Following breakfast we gathered for a hike into the hills above the lodge that took us through an orchard, a few fields dotted with cattle and then up into the jungle. Carol and I had a couple of target life birds in mind: White-crowned Manakin and Tawny-chested Flycatcher. During the course of our hike we had excellent looks at both.

morning hike and White-capped Manakin
Following the morning walk we returned to the lodge for a midday lunch. The food was both superb and superbly presented. Check out a sample of the menu here: menu. Afterward some people elected to relax and watch the garden feeders which drew in:  Orange-billed Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Carmiol’s Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Crimson-collared Tanager, and Brown Jay.

Crimson-collared Tanager
A photography tour group arrived during the day. For that reason plans were made for our group to have first crack at visiting the “hummingbird pools” late in the afternoon. The location was an arduous hike and the area to stand and observe the pools was small. The massive camera lenses and tripods of the photography group ruled out both groups being there at the same time. Richard spoke with the photography group’s leader, Kevin Easley, to sort out the arrangement. Our group today and Kevin’s the next. By the way, Kevin is a familiar name to us. He has been a leader for a number of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology birding trips to Costa Rica and would be leading an upcoming WSO trip to Ecuador in August of this year.

Anita at hummingbird pools overlook
Late afternoon before sunset was the opportune time to visit the pools - a collection of shallow water-filled depressions formed along a small stream. The observation area is a fenced ledge overlooking the pools located several feet below (check this video to view the overlook). Shafts of sunlight burn through the jungle casting light on the pools where numerous species of hummingbirds come to bath. The resulting display of sunlight striking prismatic iridescent feathers produced a radiant array of metallic sheen and hues that were quite brilliant!

Casque-headed Lizard found lurking quietly along a trail
Another evening meal, our daily checklist ritual completed, then it was off to bed. The days have passed quickly and our tour would soon be drawing to a close. Just one more full day at Rancho but we’ll make the best of it. Birds added but not already mentioned seen on hikes and from the observation deck: Common Potoo, Mottled Owl, Rufous Motmot, Immaculate Antbird, Thicket Antpitta (heard only), Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, White-winged Becard, White-ruffed Manakin, Green Shrike-Vireo (heard only), Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Green Honeycreeper, Giant Cowbird, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.
Several in our group had rooms on the second level of the main lodge while a few were sequestered in small set of lovely nearby casitas. The second story central balcony was a “commons” area shared by all guests. This was where coffee and hot water for tea and some light snacks were found daily beginning at 5:00 a.m., a time most agreeable for any serious birders. Nothing like a strong cup of Costa Rican coffee to start the day.

our room at Rancho - big enough to hold a dance!
Our room was situated off to one side of the central balcony. As a result we had a separate, private set of exterior stairs, our own balcony, and hummingbird feeder. Due to the feeder being located in a less traveled area, it attracted more hummingbirds than other feeders. As a result the visiting Asian photographers - who spoke little or no English - assumed that our balcony was for their use. Not so - we found ourselves more than once having to discourage them from traipsing up our stairs to setup up their tripods and cameras on our deck. We’re all for friendly international relations but we had to draw the line somewhere, especially since large floor-to-ceiling room windows opened directly out onto the balcony (or, from the balcony looking in) and were difficult to cover.

negotiating trail at Cerro Silencio
Our Tuesday itinerary included a lot of time away from the lodge. In the morning we headed to Cerro Silencio, a local birding hot spot sitting at between 4000-5000 feet elevation. Lev, one of the lodge’s on-staff guides, decided to accompany us. Always good to have an extra set of eyes. At Lev’s suggestion we arrived early before the heat of the day and when feeding flocks of birds might be more active. A sensible suggestion but alas, Cerro “Silencio” (Spanish for “silence”) proved to be all too literal. We didn’t find any feeding flocks, large or small. Plus the trail was quite muddy from recent rains.
birding a bit slow? there were always other distractions
However, we managed to stumble upon Torrent Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, and Buff-rumped Warblers feeding along a small stream. A Black-and-yellow Tanager provided some short-lived speculation that a feeding flock might be near but none materialized.

Back to the lodge for a bite to eat then back on the bus to visit a section of the Río La Mina, a shallow rock-strewn fast-moving river with banks dappled in alternating sun and shadow; just the perfect habitat for another of our long sought after life birds.

Carol, "Quick! One just went 'round the bend!"
Within minutes of arriving, Carol spotted our target bird as one took flight and disappeared around a bend in the river. The group quickly walked along the river bank until the bird was spotted lurking in some shadows - a Sunbittern! This heron-like bird is the sole member of the family Eurypigidae. Its cryptic coloration and slow heron-like feeding behavior make it difficult to spot. But, when it takes flight, there is no mistaking its identity as it reveals brightly colored black and red wing eye spots surrounded by yellow, with intricate herring bone patterns of white, black and gray. Two birds on this trip that have eluded us in previous CR trips: Sungrebe and Sunbittern. Totally gratifying to have now seen both.
We followed the bird as it perched/patrolled on rocks in the stream feeding on small insects and watched in awe when it spread its wings for short flights to other rocks. Definitely a trip highlight for many.

listen for a crake then find the Limpkins and Snail Kites
Leaving the Sunbittern to its feeding, we bused toward the town of Turrialba and to the Hotel Casa Turire. We weren’t interested in booking rooms. It was the nearby large body of water, Laguna Angostura, that drew our attention. It just so happened that the hotel grounds afforded an opportunity to view the lake from a boat launch dock.
By this time in the day the temperature had risen. We found it quite warm to be standing out in full sun. However, for our discomfort we were rewarded with views of Muscovy Duck, various wading birds (herons and egrets) plus a few unexpected birds (at least to us - Richard already knew they might be there). First there were Limpkin and then a few Snail Kites appeared. Both birds indicative of a local and healthy apple snail population, the single dietary mainstay of both species.

Red-breasted Blackbird
Late in the afternoon we made one last stop along a narrow gravel road bordering agricultural fields and wet meadow. It took a bit of searching but finally we spotted a target bird that one of our group, Greg Seegert, had his heart set on finding: Red-breasted Blackbird. A very cooperative male was seen and heard moving between fence post perches and short shrubs. Despite its name and coloration it’s in the same genus as meadowlarks. Bright red throat, belly and wing epaulets contrasted against mainly black plumage makes for quite a striking image. Beside Greg’s target bird we added: Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, White-collared Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit, and a quite late in the trip addition, a Tropical Mockingbird. Other birds ticked for the day included: Black Guan, Short-tailed Hawk, Band-tailed Pigeon, Paltry Tyrannulet, Collared Redstart, Black-headed Saltator, and Tawny-capped Euphonia.

Didier always pampering the bus; Didier with "Oso", Rancho's guard dog
Late afternoon back at the lodge we had a relaxed happy hour before our last Rancho evening meal. Then on to our next-to-last bird checklist ritual before retiring. Carol and I had long waited to visit Rancho Naturalista and we were delighted to have finally had the opportunity. Richard’s son, Leo, now following in his dad’s bird guiding footsteps, had worked as a guide at the lodge. The family owned and managed property is part of EBA (Endemic Bird Area) 19 of the Central American Caribbean Slope characterized by lowland and foothill tropical evergreen forest from sea level to approximately 4400 feet. For sure this is one location we would love to revisit.

Carol and Chef Vinicio
Lisa and Mario, Rancho managers
The next morning after breakfast and one last look around the gardens, we bid farewell to Rancho's friendly staff. This would be our last full day of Costa Rica birding as we drove back to San Jose and the Hotel Bougainvillea. On our way down the lodge driveway we finally had some clear looks at gaseous activity from Turrialba Volcano. But by no means were we finished birding!

Turrialba Volcano signs of activity
A roadside birding stop along a pond allowed us to flesh out our overall trip list with a few common shorebirds. But our first targeted birding stop was at the Ruins of Ujarrás near Lago de Cachi not far from from Paraiso. The Ujarrás church, originally constructed in the mid 16th century, had been rebuilt more than once due to fire, floods and earthquakes.

church ruins
Having given up on any further rebuilding attempts, the ruins, consisting mainly of the remaining walls without a roof, doors or windows, are part of a well kept small park with walks, gardens and a small pond. For our purposes this site presented a good chance to find another long sought after nemesis bird: Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow. Faithful readers of all our other Costa Rica trips may recall that whenever we stayed at the Hotel Bougainvillea, a supposedly reliable place to see one, we failed to ever find one. And who knows. Perhaps there are still some in areas surrounding the hotel (Greg thought he might have seen/heard some across the road from the hotel on the day he had arrived).

Ujarrás grounds
So, it was not without a great deal of relief when I FINALLY found a couple of Prevost’s foraging in some low shrubs. Eureka! Like the Sunbittern and Sungrebe, another nemesis bird finally shifted into the found column!
We motored on a bit further to Jardin Botánico Lankester outside of Cartago. Just down the road from the garden parking area Richard had Didier stop the bus. Richard stepped out, played a bird call recording and a very cooperate White-throated Flycatcher suddenly popped up nearby. Most everyone simply stayed on the bus as the bird continued to sit up prominently for all to see! 

Lankester Botanical Gardens definitely had a birding connection. Charles H. Lankester, an amateur British botanist who in the 1940’s in cooperation with prominent orchidologists, created a private garden on his farm. In 1973 the farm were transformed into a botanical garden which has become one of the most active and important botanical institutions in the Neotropics. The birding connection? Lankester’s daughter married one of Costa Rica’s most notable ornithologists: Dr. Alexander Skutch.

Following an outdoor picnic consisting of the one and only box lunch of the entire tour (prepared at Rancho) we birded our way through parts of the garden’s extensive botanical exhibits. However, the main attraction remained the native and exotic orchids on display in the main building. Of particular interest was a massive collection of miniature orchids visible only with a handheld magnifying glass. Some of these species were so small that they relied upon mosquitoes to serve as pollinators. 

Having beaten the majority of San Jose’s rush hour madness we had time to relax and again walk about the hotel grounds. Back for one last happy hour in the HB bar then it was our farewell dinner in the HB dining room. Fortunately Didier was able to attend and in fact, we found out that he would be transporting those of us who had very early morning flights to the airport.
An interesting sidebar about Didier and his tour bus. We learned that Didier is an independent contract driver who worked for Louís who owns the tour bus company we use on all our Costa Rica trips. Louís has also been the driver on two of our earlier CR trips. Didier, now an independent contractor still working through Louís, now owns the bus we were on having purchased it from another driver, Memo. Memo was the the driver on our first Costa Rica tour in 2004 (the famous tour where we were the first guests ever to arrive at the Río Tigre Lodge in the Osa Penisula by forging the Río Tigre on a tour bus). So. Didier's bus was the same bus we were on in 2004! No wonder it felt so familiar! 

It was a marvelous carte blanc meal giving everyone an opportunity to recount their individual trip highlights. Of course most of the trip would not have been possible were it not for Richard’s unfailing ability to pull together another intriguing itinerary as he has on all our other CR adventures with him. His professional guiding was impeccable. And as usual, his handling of all the small and not so small trip details each day allowed us all to fully enjoy Costa Rica with few of the worries of traveling in a foreign land.
Oh, yes. And a few more notable species added on our last day included: Least Grebe, Wood Stork, Smokey-brown Woodpecker, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Brown-headed Parrot, Plain Wren, and Rufous-capped Warbler.
The alarm clock went off far too early the next morning. While most of the group was still in bed a handful of us were driven to the airport which, incidentally, had a major makeover since our last visit. Just after sunrise we were on board winging our way back to Atlanta. Unfortunately, our flight included a very, very long Atlanta layover so we didn’t get back to Austin until early evening. As promised, Kate and Dennis gathered us from the airport and once again put us up for the night. After lavishing us with breakfast and an invitation to stay longer, we felt the need get back and open up the RV so we hit the road back to the Rio Grande Valley.

All in all another grand Costa Rica adventure. Bird-wise it was not a trip designed for high numbers but we still managed to add more life birds and break our 600 species mark for our overall country list. Trip total of seen/heard birds came to 309 species. Plus, we got to experience three new lodges.
If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica by all means please consider Richard. Visit his Gone Birding Tours website for contact information. And even if you don’t rely on Richard you’ll surely need to acquire his critically acclaimed field guide (updated edition soon to be released). When will we be back again to Costa Rica? You never know. In the meantime we’re already gearing up for our 2014 return trip to Ecuador. Pura Vida!

Richard and his wife
Todd and Cindy
Malachite Lizard
Spectacled Owl
Greg's haute corture
why is it called a "funny bone" when there's nothing funny about it!
Black-headed Trogon, female
interesting park regulation lower right hand corner
Kevin Easley in power bird guide pose
Lynn busnapping
Marge and Tom
Mawamba Lodge boat tour environment
Montezuma Oropendola colony
spider monkey sipping water trapped in a bromeliad

Vicki napping
Rufous-naped Wren nest construction

1 comment:

  1. I loved those hammocks!!! Easy to get into...another story getting out of..especially after several rum & cokes. Great job Tom!