Sunday, January 17, 2016

First of Two Tours: Costa Rica 2015

clockwise from San Jose
Our first bird tour in Costa Rica was in 2004. We returned again in 2007. Since then, we’ve managed a Costa Rica tour every other year. However, 2015 was the first time we attempted two back-to-back tours. A full month of birding in Costa Rica? Well, there are always a few more life birds to be ticked and we were more than ready.

Anita at far end. To her right is Melissa (naughty!) then Risé with her husband John
Dean and Chris far left. Larry and Carol far right.
Participants for the first of our two 2015 tours included Melissa Bruder and her sister-n-law, Risé Foster Bruder. They were with us on our 2008 and 2010 tours to Ecuador. This time, Risé had convinced her husband John to tag along. Anita Friedman had accompanied us on our 2013 Costa Rica bird tour and was up for another go. We first met Larry and Carol Dole when they were birding south Texas and expressed an interest in what Costa Rica had to offer. Rounding out our group were Chris and Dean Hitchcock from Upper Michigan. We had also met them in South Texas while they were volunteers at Santa Ana NWR. We kept bumping into them at several South Texas birding hot spots. Almost every time we met, the topic of Costa Rica had come up so they were more than ready.

front entrance and parking
We met Chris and Dean’s as they arrived at the San Jose Airport which coincided nicely with the time that Cesar, our rental cabin property manager, had dropped us off at the airport arrival area. We shared a taxi to the Hotel Bougainvillea, our usual Costa Rica bird tour jumping off point. Anita had already arrived a day early. The rest of the group would filter in later that afternoon. By evening, our dear friend and guide on all our Costa Rica tours, Richard Garrigues, along with his wife, stopped by to say hello. Hail, hail the gang was all here!
Richard and his wife Maricia

always lots of flowers but less bird habitat this time
Aside from ourselves and Anita, none of the group had been to the Hotel Bougainvillea before so it wasn’t surprising that no one besides ourselves recognized the dramatic changes in the hotel landscape since our last stay in 2013. We were stunned to discover how much the birding habitat had disappeared, having been replaced with more “traditional” formal gardens. Apparently the hotel had won a national award for it’s landscaping…then promptly hired some outside (read: non-birding) consultants who recommended “improvements”. Like we said, it wasn’t unappealing. Just a lot less birdy. No worries though. We knew we would see all the species we missing at the hotel elsewhere. In the meantime, the hotel’s fine food, accommodations, swimming pool, and walking paths were very much up to par.

Crimson-fronted Parakets
One downside of the hotel that was always an issue (one that most first time guests don’t realize until it’s too late) is its rather distant location from the airport. It can be a huge problem during early morning and rush hour if one has to catch an early flight. The traffic is horrendous. One could spend hours getting to and from the airport. For this reason alone, on Richard’s recommendation, we had scouted another hotel at the tail end of our 2013 tour. That hotel was a mere fifteen minute drive to the airport. But more on that later.
After we had exhausted all the birding possibilities in the gardens, the big attraction turned out to be at the front of the hotel where a couple hundred raucous Crimson-fronted Parakeets gathering in their evening roost.

Marking the “official” start of the tour, early the next morning we assembled with Richard for a walkabout down a road located directly across from the hotel which lead through urban scrub. A totally unexpected highlight of the walk was finding a Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow! White-eared Ground-Sparrows had always found in the hotel gardens (except for this visit). And while Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow has always been listed on the hotel bird checklist, Carol and I had never - and I mean never - seen any on the hotel grounds. And trust us when we say, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

off we go
After breakfast we gathered with our luggage, met our driver Carlos, and loaded onto our “Turisimo” coaster bus. We have to say, a good guide can make or break a tour…but it’s the driver who makes everyone’s travel so much more enjoyable. Over the next few weeks, Carlos did just that and then some.
Putting together a tour itinerary following so many previous tours (this was our sixth) and keeping it interesting for everyone as well as for us was a challenge. But leave it to Richard’s expertise to pull it off. True, all of the destinations on this first tour would be places we’d been to before but they were places we longed to see again.

newer cabins and bar outdoor seating
Our first overnight stop was the Savegre Mountain Lodge some sixty miles from San José. Here we found ourselves in higher elevation birding comprised of second growth forest and older oak forest habitat. We had not been back to Savegre since 2007 so we were more than a little taken aback (pleasantly so) at how much the lodge had expanded. It was now officially known as the “Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve and Spa”. A spa?! Already there were murmurings of foregoing  a few hours of birding. Several more cabins had also been added, mainly further up the mountain above where the original cabins still stood. The bar/lounge had been relocated and expanded, now with a separate entrance. The restaurant had remained pretty much untouched (but seriously - they must install a larger coffee maker now that the lodge has many more guests). There were a few new trails, some rerouted trails, and a small conference center had recently been added. Enough changes to make it seem like we were visiting for the first time yet the lodge retained all the main attractions - the birds!

Resplendent Quetzal
Savegre is where folks come to see the Resplendent Quetzal. Not always a given (we’ve never missed it here). This time we had great views of an active nest cavity with both the male and female present. The male wowed us with close overhead flights to and from the nest cavity. It reminded us of a scene in Harry Potter’s “Flight of the Phoenix” when Dumbledore’s Phoenix swooped in to save the day. Another unexpected find was a long sought after life bird: Spot-breasted Wood-Quail foraging in the understory just off the trail leading from the quetzal nest cavity.

definitely a lot cooler at Cerro!
Green Violetear
No visit to Savegre would be complete without loading onto a truck and being transported up the mountainside in order to work gravity to our advantage by walking/birding our way back down the mountain. We spent an evening chasing after owls but high winds and cold temps caused us to whiff on any night birds. Then there was something new: a visit to Miriam’s cafe which had numerous active bird feeding stations. Also, a stop at the top of Cerra de la Morte, one of the highest spots along the Panamanian Highway to search through stunted tree lined forest and grassy páramo for Timberline Wren and Volcano Junco.

Tufted Flycatcher (top); Flame-colored Tanager
Unfortunately Anita had come down with some kind of flu-like bug which had her confined to her room during most of our stay at Savegre. Carlos, our driver, waited on her hand and foot, always making sure she had whatever she could keep down. By the time we left Savegre, Anita was her old self again thanks to Carlos and his round the clock attention. What a guy!

feeling better, trooper Anita got right back on the horse...and that's no bull!
Departing Savegre we roadside birded our way toward the Atlantic coast, stopping at a few key birding spots along the way. Late that afternoon, while stopped in the coastal town of Jacó, Richard happened to overhear a conversation about a fatal traffic accident that had just occurred up the road between Jacó and our turnoff to Hotel Villa Lapas. These kinds of delays can take hours to resolve! Richard and Carlos put their heads together and came up with an alternative route, one that would take us over a rough mountain road.  We imagined that during the day it might have been quite lovely. But at night, the narrow, bumpy, twisting, dusty road was anything but scenic. However, we reached the lodge unscathed just in time for the essentials: drinks and dinner. In that order.

Villa Lapas lodging and open air dining
While the hotel had its own attractions like a Fiery-billed Aracari roost cavity, a Spectacled Owl mobbed by Brown Jays, and an active Black-mandibled Toucan nest cavity, the star attraction was the nearby Carara National Park. This northernmost, still intact Pacific coastal rain forest is an important transition zone into dry tropical forests. No trip to Costa Rica would be complete without either Carara or the La Selva Biological Station. On this tour we would do both!

Red-capped Manakin
Gartered Trogon
For the next few days we visited some of the park’s interior trails where we found another one of those long sought after nemesis life birds, a Royal Flycatcher. Even better, it was a male and female working on building a nest. Nearby, having just bathed, a Purple-crowned Fairy spent several minutes preening. One late afternoon we hiked to a small stream which yielded repeated looks at Blue-crowned Manakins and Red-capped Manakins coming to bathe. This was followed by a stop at the Río Grande de Tárcoles bridge to watch Scarlet MaCaws as they headed toward their night roosts while in the river below, were scores of American crocodiles.

Richard conversing with his son Leonardo who is now guiding his own groups
even the other guides wanted Richard's autograph
As we travel with Richard it’s fun to watch other guides and their guests reactions when they recognize Richard as the author of the latest Costa Rica bird field guide. Richard, as always, graciously takes the time to chat with folks. While we were at Villa Lapas, there was a small tour organized by Swarovski and Eagle Optics and guided by Leo Garrigues, Richard’s eldest son. We’ve emailed back and forth with Leo at various times but this was our first face-to-face encounter. Just like his dad - extremely personable (although a tad too serious at times). And who should be in Leo’s group? Our friend Nina Cheney from Eagle Optics!

Carol with Nina Cheney
We spent one afternoon on a river trip up and down part of the Rio Tarcoles. Beautiful weather and a most relaxing way to search mudflats and mangroves for Panama Flycatcher, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Mangrove Cuckoo, American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird.

on the Tarcoles River
Departing Villa Lapas we headed northward to the Golfo de Nicoya coast and La Ensenada Lodge. Decidedly more warm and humid, this property, while dedicated to cattle, horses and the production of salt, is administered with an eye to a natural return to a forest environment. Having been designated one of Costa Rica’s National Wildlife Refuges in 1977, this area is important because it has one of the last primary and secondary forests in the Puntarenous province.

cabins and sunset at La Ensenada
We spent just the one night but a walk on the property in the morning revealed a roosting family of Pacific Screech-Owls, Gartered Trogon, a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots, and during breakfast, up close and personal looks at inquisitive and pushy White-throated Magpie-Jays. Great to have them so close. Just don’t leave your breakfast plate unattended!

Pacific Screech-Owls
White-throated Magpie-Jay
Turquoise-browed Motmot
A relatively short travel day brought us to the Arenal Observatory Lodge near the town of La Fortuna. As we rounded Lake Arenal we caught a rare glimpse of the top of Arenal Volcano but alas, when we arrived at the lodge an hour later, we were greeted with overcast skies and rain which seemed to dog us during our entire stay.

great views of the volcano from our decks (if it hadn't been cloudy!)
birding from the deck rain or shine (Carlos our driver on the right)
The lodge and spa had grown out of rather humble and simple dwellings, originally constructed to house researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and Earthwatch Organization. Sitting atop a forested ridge, the present day main lodge and dining area and deck overlook Costa Rica’s largest lake and is less than two miles from the looming volcano. During our 2009, we experienced an evening filled with loud rumbling booms. From our balcony, saw Volkswagon-sized boulders expelled from the volcano’s caldera. As the boulders rolled down the volcano’s slope, and struck other large rocks, they burst into a showers of sparks of molten lava. However, the volcano remained dormant, as it has for the past several years.

Golden-hooded Tanagers
Grayish Saltator
our good friend Christian Campos
The large deck that juts out from the restaurant is an excellent vantage point to sit or stand and watch numerous species of birds (and a few mammals) frequent the elaborate bird feeder system. Further afield there are numerous trails (some paved) that wind through the lodge’s manicured gardens (good for hummingbirds), dense primary forest, and lead to a waterfall. A steep demanding trail descends to the Rio Agua Caliente below the lodge.
While the wet weather proved challenging, we managed to eke out White-fronted Nunbird, Band-backed Wren, Black-striped Sparrow, Slaty Spinetail, Collared Aracari, Olive-backed Euphonia, showy Montezuma Oropendula, Crimson-collared Tanager, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Black-crested Coquette, just to name a few. We also managed a couple of personal bonuses to our Arenal visit. One was chatting again with a young lodge wildlife/bird guide, Christian Compos. It was Christian who, during an earlier visit, we managed to get a donated a pair of binoculars from Eagle Optics delivered to him after we discovered Christian only had a spotting scope. We also chanced upon meeting Robert Dean, the artist who illustrated all the birds in Richard’s “The Birds of Costa Rica” A Field Guide” (both editions) and who gladly added his John Hancock next to Richard’s signature in our latest copy of Richard’s field guide.

our lodging and getting our bearings
Our next destination? La Selva Biological Station. Located in the northeastern lowlands of the Caribbean side of the country, at the confluence of two major rivers (Rio Puerto Viejo and Rio Sarapiqui), La Selva was originally established in 1954 as a farm dedicated to experimentation on mixed plantations for the improvement of natural resources management. It was later purchased in 1968 by the Organization for Tropical Studies and declared a private biological reserve and station. Since then, it has become one of the most important sites in the world for research of tropical rain forest flora and fauna. Over 240 scientific papers are published yearly from research conducted in its tropical and premontane wet forests.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Broad-billed Motmot
Pale-billed Woodpecker
It would be impossible to experience all La Selva has to offer in a month’s stay, let alone during our two days and nights. However we maximized our stay by traversing as much habitat as was humanely possible, including the large open area adjacent to the mess hall. Speaking of the mess hall (remember this is first and foremost a research station not a lodge and spa) we were delighted to see the addition of a salad bar!

Species ticked during our stay included White-collared Manakin, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers (a pair working on a nest cavity), Spotted Antbird, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-headed Oropendula, Prong-billed Barbet, and an incredible close encounter with a pair of Sunbittern that calmly walked within inches of where we were standing! Then there were the ridiculously good looks at Great Tinamou.
On the last full day of our tour as we headed back to San José, we included a stop at Poás Volcano, an active 9,000 foot stratovolcano in Central Costa Rica which has erupted 39 times since 1828. The main tourist attractions at Poás are its two  crater lakes (Laguna Caliente and Lake Botos). Viewing either of the two craters is very much like trying to see the top of Arenal Volcano - totally dependent upon the weather. Fortunately for us, the weather at the top this particular day was clear affording us good looks at the turquoise-colored Lake Caliente, one of the most acid lakes in the world. Naturally we were also there to see the birds. Like Black-thighed Grosbeak, White-naped Brush-Finch, Collared Redstart, Yellow-thighed Finch, the secretive Sooty-capped Bush Tanager, Large-footed Finch, and the stunning Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

Collared Redstart
Yellow-thighed Finch
All too soon we found ourselves at the Buena Vista Lodge overlooking the city of San José. This was the lodge we had scouted during our 2013 tour and this would be our first stay at this locale. We have to say, we were very impressed. While it lacks the vast grounds of the Bougainvillea, the surrounding vegetation with an overlook offers several birding opportunities. And, the accommodations and food were first rate. Bonus: the barmen really knew there trade! A very fitting end to our first tour.

wrapping up at the Buena Vista
After our farewell meal at the Buena Vista, and bidding everyone safe travels, the group dispersed to their rooms to pack and prepare for early departures. In the morning everyone was shuttled to the airport. We on the other hand, with another tour coming up, settled in for a relaxing two days of just hanging out at the Hotel Buena Vista.
One final mention. Meals as we travel between lodges. Richard somehow always knows where the best little roadside restaurants or cafes are to be found. There was the Rancho Perla near La Fortuna, Restaurante La Pacifica in Canás City, the stunning view from Valle Encantado Restaurante near Pelez Zeledon, just to name a few of the stops. Richard knows our groups very well!

Melissa and Anita
Chris and Dean
Risé and John
Carol and Larry
in Costa Rica, Rose-throated Becard lacks a rose throat
Orange-fronted Parakeets
Spectacled Owl
Streaked Flycatcher
Groove-billed Ani
Great Tinamou
Black-capped Tityra
Umbrellabird's nest
Strawberry "bluejean" Poison Dart Frog
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Mangrove Swallow
Striped Sparrow
Violet Saberwing
Passerini's Tanager
Emerald Toucanet
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Red-eyed Leaf-Frog


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  2. Well, I'm certainly glad you did 2 trips this year! It was nice to tick life birds off with the two of you. Great write-up and great photos - even though I wasn't on this trip, reading about it brought me right back there! Now I want to go back!!!