Sunday, April 10, 2016

Second of Two Tours: Costa Rica 2015

Note: we started from the Buena Vista, not the Bougainvillea
We spent a couple of much needed days of relaxation at the Hotel Buena Vista as we awaited the arrival of our second tour group. Well, we were relaxed up until it seemed that some of our second tour participants might face unexpected delays having nothing to do with winter weather.

balcony view
Early on Thursday March 12, Turrialba Volcano erupted three times sending ash across parts of San José and causing the Juan Santamaría International Airport to close. Although some fifty miles away, we witnessed the eruption from our room balcony. Had we been booked in at the Hotel Bougainvillea we too would have gotten a pretty good dusting of ash. Ash at the airport? It could cause serious damage to aircraft engines as well as reduced visibility.

a very relieved Dar with Carol
Lance, Michael, Amanda, Nancy
Matt, Michael, Dar, Nancy
We immediately started texting/emailing updates about the situation on the ground. Ultimately, no one in our group wound up being delayed. After its initial activity, Turrialba remained quiet. The airport was reopened Friday about noon, just in time for the first participant to arrive, Dar Tiede. The rest of our group, very much relieved, arrived as scheduled and on time. Well, mostly on time.

Debs demonstrates proper desert sharing etiquette
Stuart Malcom and his wife Debs, who were just finishing up a week’s vacation in Costa Rica. had planned to join us at the Buena Vista earlier on Saturday. But due to the crash of a private plane at their departing airport, their in-country flight to San José was delayed by several hours. Instead they went to their plan B. They hired a driver and car and managed to join us in time for our Saturday night meal.
Our second group were all members of the Northeast Wisconsin Bird Club and knew each other very well. In addition to Dar and Stuart, the group would include Matthew King, Nancy Johnson, her 12-yr old son Michael, her husband Lance and their daughter Amanda. This was the first time we had an entire family join us on a tour. Nancy and Michal were the birders. Lance and Amanda were not quite so keen on birding but because Lance had a lot of international travel under his belt, they assured us that he and Amanda would be quite comfortable fending for themselves.

excited to be in a warm climate
With drinks in hand and binoculars at the ready, the group repeatedly commented that being in a tropical climate (as opposed to a Wisconsin winter) was indeed a very good circumstance as they set about IDing new bird species
On Sunday March 14, the first official start of our tour, we were joined by our guide Richard Garrigues. We also learned that Carlos, our driver during our first tour, would again be our driver during tour number two. Excellent!

Villa Lappis lodging
celebrating number 2,000!
all aboard for the Rio Tarcloes
Sunday morning, while Stuart accompanied Debs to the airport for her reluctant return to wintery Wisconsin (she needed to get back to work), the rest of us spent time birding in and around the hotel grounds. Blue-gray tanager, tropical kingbird, rufous-collared sparrow, clay-colored thrush, blue-crowned motmot, grayish saltator, Hoffman’s woodpecker, and crimson-fronted parakeet, just to get things rolling amid mutterings of “another life bird!”.
Rejoined by Stuart and following breakfast, we gathered our luggage, boarded our bus and set out on the first leg of our tour toward the Pacific Ocean side of the country. Our first overnight? The Hotel Villa Lapas. This was the only lodging overlap from our first tour but a welcome revisit nevertheless. Venturing into Carara National Park never disappoints.

fiery-billed aracari
red-capped manakin
slaty-tailed trogon
The next day was split between visiting trails at Carara and a boat trip on the Tarcoles River. A major highlight of the day was Stuart ticking his 2,000th life bird: Great Tinamou. Stuart gladly “bought a round” for everyone to celebrate (of course anyone who’s stayed at Villa Lappas knows that all drinks are included…Stuart still owes us a drink!). Other birds of the day included marbled wood-quail, bare-throated tiger-heron (an active nest at the lodge), spectacled owl being harassed by brown jays, stripe-throated hermit, purple-crowned fairy, slaty-tailed trogon, rufous-tailed jacamar, turquoise-browed motmot, dot-winged antwren, chestnut-backed antbird, black-faced antthrush, northern bentbill, ruddy-tailed flycatcher, bright-rumped attila, royal flycatcher, riverside wren, bay-headed tanager, long-billed gnatwren, red-capped manakin, orange-collared manakin, and blue-crowned manakin.

black-headed trogon
scarlet macaw
ferruginous pygmy-owl
The next morning we rose early and drove a short distance to an overlook of the Tarcoles River Valley. Black-headed trogon, Baird’s trogon, ferruginous pygmy-owl, pale-billed woodpecker, some parrot fly-bys (red-lored, yellow-naped), scarlet macaw (several were coming to feeders at a nearby home), Panama flycatcher, ochre-bellied flycatcher, yellow-olive flycatcher, streaked flycatcher, rose-throated becard, white-throated magpie jay, streak-backed oriole, and scrub euphonia. Many more mutterings of “it’s a life bird” which would be the mantra of the trip.

Panama flycatcher
Following breakfast at Villa Lapas we loaded up for our drive north to Monteverde and Cala Lodge. Cala was the first of two lodges we’d not stayed at in during any of our previous tours. After checking in, we took the opportunity to make a run up to the Monteverde Could Forest Reserve.

buff-fronted quail-dove
Visiting Monteverde is all about timing. Either early in the morning or late in the afternoon tends to be ideal. The trick is to arrive before the big tour buses or after they have left. No sooner had we checked in at the gate when we stumbled upon a buff-fronted quail-dove hanging out around the restroom area. Typically, these birds are not so easy to find! An easy hike along one of the interior trails netted us black guan, black-breasted wood-quail, a barred forest-falcon (it flashed past right over our heads!), streak-headed woodcreeper, spotted barbtail, black-faced solitaire, and slate-throated redstart.
A late afternoon stop at a nearby preserve with several hummingbird feeders put us in close proximity with green hermit, green violetear, green-crowned brilliant, purple-throated mountain-gem, violet sabrewing, stripe-tailed hummingbird, steely-vented hummingbird, and coppery-headed emerald.

golden-olive woodpecker
blue-crowned motmot
The lodge didn’t serve evening meals so we made do with a local restaurant, the Restaurante Monteverde. However, the lodge did provide a full breakfast, starting off with that all important elixir of life - coffee. With coffee in hand, many of us observed the lodge’s many bird feeders that attracted birds (and a few squirrels). Magnificent close-up views of golden-olive woodpeckers going in and out of a nest cavity as well as blue-crowned motmot.
The next full day was split into visiting two different habitats separated by elevation . Going a bit lower into a drier habitat to the Santuario Ecologico Preserve, we picked up species that included white hawk, groove-billed ani, gray-headed chachalaca, orange-belled trogon, orange-chinned parakeet, red-faced spinetail, brown-crested flycatcher, masked tityra, barred becard, rufous-and-white wren, rufous-naped wren, mottled owl, black-headed nightingale-thrush, collared redstart, golden-crowned warbler, Passerini’s tanager, spangle-cheeked tanager, slaty flowerpiercer, stripe-headed sparrow, and blue grosbeak.

northern barred woodcreeper
gray-crowned yellowthroat
resplendent quetzal
Following lunch in Monteverde, we headed back up to higher elevation locations (including Reserva Bosque Nuboso - Santa Elena) where we found some of the species we had the day before plus we added Montezuma oropendula, golden-browed chlorophonia, an incredible display of a male bronzed cowbird (not sure if the female cowbirds were impressed but we sure were!), gray-crowned yellowthroat, white-throated thrush, ochracheous wren, tufted flycatcher, ruddy treerunner, northern barred woodcreeper, lineated foliage-gleaner, buffy tuftedcheek, brown-billed scythebill, orange-fronted parakeet, keel-billed toucan, emerald toucanet, and prong-billed barbet. Not at all surprising, the sighting of the day was a resplendent quetzal, but, the group was easily distracted by a gray-crowned yellowthroat. We were on our way to a tree where the quetzal was perched no more than 100 feet away when the yellowthroat popped up. We spent several minutes oohing and awing at the yellowthroat. Richard was impressed. “Any group of birders eager to chase a gray-crowned yellowthroat on their way to see a life sighting of a quetzal which is so close, is a very serious group of birders indeed!”

room with a view and gourmet food at Celeste
After another evening of dining out in Monteverde and completing our daily checklist, plans were set for our next day’s departure. We’d be heading further north through rolling farmlands, finally arriving at Celeste Mountain Lodge, just over the Caribbean side of the Continental Divide. Celeste has been one of our favorite stops on past tours. Not only because of the birding but because of the French-influenced Tica-fusion cuisine.
civilized birding
Located on the slopes of the Tenorio Volcano, within the new boundaries of the Volcan Tenorio National Park and in the heart of the Tenorio-Miravalles Biological Corridor, the birding opportunities abounded. We walked the lodge trail system a few times and experienced roadside birding along a gravel road which was surprisingly well traveled. Lance and Amanda, the non-birding members of the group entertained themselves by renting horses. This lead to one of the more memorable birding experiences of the day. While Lance and Amanda were riding past us on the gravel road, members of the group were busy photographing the riders. Richard suddenly shouted, “Forget the horses!”. The group whirled around to find a bare-necked umbrellabird had just flown in and was busy preening. Everyone had excellent protracted looks at an otherwise very, very hard bird to see on most any Costa Rica tour.

the "forget the horses!" bare-necked umbrellabird
Combined birding around the lodge plus a few short drives away, netted us gray-chested dove, black-crested coquette, white-necked jacobin, violet-headed hummingbird, bronze-tailed plumeleteer, black-bellied hummingbird, snowcap, black-throated trogon, white-fronted nunbird, tody motmot, broad-billed motmot, keel-billed motmot, laughing falcon, bat falcon, scale-crested pygmy-tyrant, common tody-flycatcher, tropical pewee, black-crowned tityra, northern schiffornis, white-winged becard, green shrike vireo, gray-breasted martin, tawny-crowned greenlet, stripe-breasted wren, bay wren, shining honeycreeper, bananaquit, black-striped sparrow, carmoli’s tanager, and blue-black grosbeak.

our cabin - lovely but impractical in so many ways
The next morning we took the shortest trip to another lodge we’ve ever encountered on any of our tours: 15 minutes. It was to another lodge we’d not been to before on any of our previous tours: Heliconias Lodge.
Heliconias was, well, different. At least the accommodations. It had started out as a modest research station but eventually was expanded into a lodge. During the expansion, more attention was paid to looks rather than function. It was as if someone drew up plans for the cabins but never spent any time in them. Our cabin, while quite lovely, had plenty of space but electrical outlets were placed in odd locations. The shower was a hand-held wand which in itself wasn’t strange. But the wand’s placement meant having to step into a very deep whirlpool bath with no shower curtain and with no comfortable place to sit. Getting to the cabins required having to pull luggage along an inclined gravel trail for some distance (pavers would have been very helpful). Were it not for our driver’s assistance, we all might have suffered back problems.

suspension bridges and lattice-tailed trogon (female)
The real beauty of Heliconias was the extensive trail system. Traversing a handful of suspension bridges gave us tree top views of added more species to the trip list: red-billed pigeon, lattice-tailed trogon, black-mandibled toucan, black-cheeked woodpecker, barred antshrike, wedge-billed woodcreeper, slaty spinetail, black-cowled oriole, yellow-throated euphonia, and olive-backed euphonia.
One of our most exciting birding events on the trip occurred while at Heliconias. We encountered an Army ant swarm that had attracted several species of antbirds: dull-mantled, Zeledon’s, bicolored, spotted and the stunning ocellated. Typically these are all skulkers of the first order and hard to see but due to the foraging ants, hundreds of insects were desperately fleeing which in turn had tempted the antbirds out of the shadows.

entrance to Hotel de Campo Caño Negro and Lago Caño Negro wetlands
After breakfast we reloaded our luggage onto our bus for another relatively short move out of the Bijagua area into the north central Caribbean region and the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge where waterfowl and wading birds would take center stage. We birded our way over to the Hotel de Campo Caño Negro (encountering a lesser yellow-headed vulture along the way!).
Shortly after arriving, we took the first of two boat tours on the Rio Frio eventually winding up in a vast shallow wetland lake, Lago Caño Negro. The trip list was quickly fleshed out with: bare-throated tiger-heron, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, green heron, boat-billed heron, glossy ibis, roseate spoonbill, gray-necked wood-rail, limpkin, black-necked stilt, collared plover, ringed kingfisher, amazon kingfisher, green kingfisher, American pygmy kingfisher, peregrine falcon, white-tailed hawk, and black-collared hawk.
Late in the afternoon as light was fading in Lago Caño Negro, we chanced upon a very difficult bird to see: yellow-breasted crake. Unfortunately not everyone got to see the bird but given we were going to do a second boat trip the next morning, hopes were high that the rest of the group might see the crake.

Before dinner that evening we boarded the bus for short trip up the road to stake out a pretty spectacular night bird. Arriving at the intersection of three roads we were instructed to keep watch of a nearby street light. Within minutes a large shadow appeared and alighted on the top of the light. From it’s perch the bird would sally out, catch an insect, and return to its perch atop the light. Each time it re-landed it let out a very audible “WHOA”, not unlike the sound made by by the character known as Fonzy in the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. This bird? A great potoo. Aside from the crake, this was the bird of the day. To and from the site we also spied lesser nighthawks in the road or atop fenceposts. 
Up early the next morning we set out again on the Rio Frio and headed directly to the spot where the crake had been seen the day before. This time the bird was extremely cooperative. Everyone was rewarded with incredible looks at not just one but two crakes. Along the way we found rafts of black-bellied whistling-ducks, several wood storks, a much sought after jabiru followed by Nicaraguan grackles, a white-tailed kite, purple gallinules, and groove-billed anis. From the lake we steered back to the river channel where it wove through dense canopy. More closeups of one of the groups’ favorite birds: the diminutive American pygmy kingfisher. Overhead, jumping from tree to tree were white-headed Capuchin plus some Central American squirrel monkeys.

agami heron
At one point we parked and disembarked along the bank to walk into a small lagoon where we found an agami heron, another nemesis bird we’ve seemed to have missed on prior tours. Admittedly, this was only an immature male and thus lacked much of the striking colors of a full adult male. striking colors aside, we certainly enjoyed long looks as it strode through the shallows wielding its rapier-like bill and characteristically flicking its tail feathers. Overhead we heard, than finally located, a very vocal pied puffbird.
Returning to the lodge, some of the group sought relief from the afternoon heat and humidity in the lodge’s swimming pool while others continued to bird the lodge grounds and adjoining properties. For their efforts (the those who birded - not the swimmers) they were rewarded with olivaceous piculet, pale-billed woodpecker, bronzy hermit, green-breasted mango, red-throated ant-tanager, thick-billed seed-finch, golden-hooded tanager, palm tanager, spot-breasted wren, white-collared manakin, fork-tailed flycatcher, scissor-tailed flycatcher, rufous mourner, yellow tyrannulet, cocoa woodcreeper, olive-throated parakeet, lineated woodpecker, collared aracari, gray-headed dove, and pale-vented pigeon.

Catarata del Toro
That evening we had more time to relax at the bar, go over our daily checklist and discuss the next day’s journey which would be a fairly long drive back to the Hotel Buena Vista. A brief walk around the property in the morning to scoop up some birds for those who failed to bird the day before and we were off on a six-plus hour drive. But of course there were opportunities for birding along the way as well as a comfortable lunch stop at Cataraca del Toro waterfall. New birds for the trip included fasciated tiger-heron, harris’s hawk, green thorntail, collared trogon, acorn woodpecker, spotted woodcreeper (had until now been a heard only), black phoebe, tropical parula, and tawny-capped euphonia. We also found another resplendent quetzal - who ever tires of seeing these? And wouldn’t you think that instead of the clay-colored robin being Costa Rica’s national bird that the quetzal would make a better representative?

Poas Volcano
By late afternoon we were back at the Hotel Buena Vista. But by no means were we finished birding. With one more full day of birding to go, we left the hotel early the next day and made our way up to Poas Volcano for high elevation birding. The trick to getting to Poas in order to get a shot at seeing the crater is leaving early enough before low hanging clouds obscured the view. The weather at Poas, as with most high elevations in Costa Rica, can be very fickle. There have been times during past visits to Poas when the crater was totally socked in, or, encountered high winds and rain. But today? The volcano gods were in our favor. Clear views all the way.
Vaux’s swifts were out in good numbers as was one of our target birds, the fiery-throated hummingbird. When the sun hits these hummingbirds just right, views consist of a riot of iridescent colors. Hiking some of the trails produced other high elevation species. Scintillant hummingbird, prong-billed barbet, a highly sought after silvery-fronted tapaculo, spot-crowned woodpecker, mountain elaenia, yellow-winged vireo, black-billed nightingale-thrush, sooty thrush, black-and-yellow silky-flycatcher, long-tailed silky flycatcher, rufous-capped warbler, and another major target bird: wrenthrush (we don’t always get to see one on every visit to Poas). Peg-legged finch, yellow-thighed finch, large-footed finch, and sooty-capped bush-tanager rounded out the Poas list.

volcano hummingbird
Amanda's bracelet
2-toed sloth
Departing Poas we headed back toward San Jose. Along the way we stopped for lunch at Restaurante el Descanso also known as Freddo Fresas (famous for their strawberry shakes!). Across the road from the restaurant was a  hummingbird garden. Then a stop at a well known bridge birding hot spot. In this case we finally caught up with a volcano hummingbird which we somehow had missed at Poas. Bonus was an adult two-toed sloth with a youngster resting in a tree. One more stop was a late afternoon coffee break at a roadside coffee farm (complete with gift shop where Amanda found just the right piece of jewelry).

Buena Vista Hotel (headed back in 2017)
Back at the Buena Vista for happy hour, wrap up our final bird checklist, share our top five birds, and feast on a sumptuous farewell meal. Last minute details for airport transport schedule were made, then the group set off to pack and hit the hay. There was some talk of wishing Turrialba would re-awaken causing just enough activity to close the airport and be “stuck” in Costa Rica for a few more days but come the morning Turrialba failed remained silent.
And our bird tally? It was a whopping 504 species seen with an additional 5 species as heard only. By far this was the best bird tally of any of our previous tours and the previous two week tour wasn’t anything to sneeze at! The weather was on our side. We enjoyed terrific food both at the lodges and during our many roadside stops. The group camaraderie was keen and even the non-birders in the group agreed that this had been one of the best trips they had ever taken.

Richard's latest project now in print
Of course much of the planning and artful shepherding of the group fell to the shoulders of our ever dependable guide, Richard Garrigues. By the way, since our tour, Richard’s newest bird field guide has come out on print: Photo Guide to Birds of Costa Rica. Be sure to check it out. Pura Vida!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write-up!!! I had a smile on my face from beginning to end - such great memories with an outstanding group of birders/friends. Truly a magical trip.

    Yes, Stuart not only owes us that beer, but I'm from Wisconsin and around here we charge interest so he better bring the credit card!