Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Costa Rica 2017, Part 2

Our tour itinerary, compiled by long time friend and guide, Richard Garrigues (author of The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide) was an intro tour, geared to exploring several of the ‘must do’ habitats. A tour tailor made for our group: four of the eight had never been to Costa Rica before.
Including ourselves our group consisted of Risé Foster-Bruder and John Bruder, and their friends, Jeannie and Ron Mitchell, all from Colorado. Peggy Rudman (like us, is a full-time RVer) we had first met at Kartchner Caverns State Park in 2015 where she was a fellow volunteer. And rounding out our group was long time friend, Rick Meyers (Virginia). We first met Rick when he was our city’s police chief in Appleton. Rick is now the Police Chief in Newport News, Virginia. For quite some time we’d been luring Rick to join one of our tours. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, it was just his busy schedule that had stood in the way. Until now!
As mentioned in the previous blog, our extra pre-tour day was spent birding the Hotel Buena Vista grounds before traveling (via Über) to Alajuela. Later that afternoon, Rick's flight had arrived and he joined us (binocular at the ready!) watching birds at the hotel. Richard made his appearance by late afternoon. The evening was spent getting acquainted (and reacquainted) with each other over dinner while we reviewed our trip agenda. To say that everyone was excited is a grand understatement!
The next morning, fortified with coffee, we briefly birded the hotel grounds before a light breakfast. By now the life bird tallies had begun in earnest. As seasoned travelers to the tropics, one might think that we had become somewhat jaded, seeing the same species over and over. But they would be wrong. And for those visiting the neotropics for the first time? The unbridled awe and delight of seeing even the most common of species for the first time? Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Tropical Kingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and even Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush? Well, it was impossible not to feed off their energy and excitement, reminding us of our first tropical birding encounters.
Didier, our driver for the duration of the tour, joined us for breakfast. We recalled Didier  from our 2013 tour and were delighted to have him along. Following breakfast we gathered our luggage (gosh, it would be nice if the hotel had an elevator!) and loaded onto our coaster bus, our transportation for the tour’s duration. Air conditioned, large windows and plenty of room to spread out.

cleared just as we had hoped it would!
 Leaving the hotel early we hoped to beat both the crowds and the clouds at our first stop, Poas Volcano National Park. In addition to hoping for a clear view into the active crater, we’d be seeking out highland species. Many of these species, endemic to the mountains of Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama, are only found at this elevation.
The past few days we’d seen storms pass through the Central Valley and today was no different. A weather pattern such as this often portended poor views of the crater and in fact, we arrived at Poas National Park under overcast skies. We birded our way up a long paved path to discover the crater shrouded in mist. But, within minutes, the clouds lifted giving us magnificent overviews. Photo ops!

Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
From the Laguna Caliente crater rim, as clouds again settled back obscuring the view, we hiked further up to a second overlook, Lake Botos, an inactive crater filled with fresh water. From there a popular loop trail leads into dense forest filled with hundreds of epiphytes dangling from moss-laden trees. To our disappointment the trail head was blocked due to ‘trail maintenance’. Undeterred, Richard knew of a branching trail that intersected with the trail we wished to travel. The detour turned out to be a blessing since the bulk of tourists either didn’t know about, or care about, looking for this alternate. It left us - and more importantly, the birds - fairly undisturbed. We successfully searched for and found target birds that included Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Mountain Elaenia,  Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Sooty Thrush, Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher, Black-cheeked Warbler, and Wrenthrush.

Falls above the bridge - a few days later while crossing the bridge we saw the remains of an accident
In January 2009, Poas had been near the epicenter of a destructive 6.1-magnitude earth quake that impacted the area with massive landslides. In 2017, barely a month after our visit, an explosion on April 12 caused the park to close. Subsequent eruptions on April 14 resulted in a 3-kilometer column of ash and vapor. Further explosions followed on April 16 and finally, on April 22, a substantial blast sent incandescent rocks over a large area which damaged park buildings and infrastructure, including the newly updated viewing platform at the crater’s edge where we had been standing. As of now, the park is still closed and off limits indefinitely (updates available at the national park regional office).

Chef Joel and some of his amazing deserts
From Poas, we traveled to the renowned La Selva Biological Station, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). On the way we scoped a section of the La Paz River below the La Paz Water Gardens where we found Torrent Tyrannulets. Then a highly anticipated lunch stop at one of our favorite restaurants in all of Costa Rica: Colbert’s. The owner, Chef Joel, runs a lovely French restaurant in the middle of nowhere. His cheese platter is to die for and his wife's bread is amazing. He has a good selection of wine and his desserts are not to be overlooked (save room!). We always have good food, good service and enjoy watching the many hummingbird feeders.

Silver-throated Tanager
Prong-billed Barbet
Palm Tanager
A must-do birding stop along the road to La Selva is in the small village of Cinchona. The previously mentioned 2009 earthquake effectively wiped it off the map. Up to that point, Cinchona had been the site of a well known (in birding circles) cafe that stocked a series of bird feeding stations. Since then the area has been rebuilt and a second cafe (Mirado La Cascada) has taken to stocking several feeding stations attracting both birds and birders alike. Stunning up-close looks at hummingbirds (Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald), Prong-billed Barbet, tanagers (Passerini’s, Palm, Silver-throated, Blue-gray), Buff-throated Saltator, Common Chlorospingus, and a surprise visit by a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove.

our lodging at La Selva
We arrived at La Selva by late afternoon, just in time to check in and pass through the food line for dinner. Our rooms, a few kilometers away from the main buildings, required us to shuttle to and from the dining hall and main trails via our coaster. Back in our room that evening we were serenaded by Common Pauraque (sitting in the parking area) and an incessant Vermiculated Screech-Owl.

section of John's book showing details about La Selva
An evening ritual throughout our tour included recording our daily bird tally. The checklists for this tour were provided by John Bruder. And not just any checklists - they contained several pages of background material and photos about locations we were to stay and the birds we might see. Kudos! Well done, John! Your work was appreciated by all.
The OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) is a nonprofit consortium of nearly sixty universities, colleges, and research institutions from around the world. La Selva, an OTS property of 1,600 hectares is located in the Caribbean lowlands at the northern base of Braulio Carrillo National Park. It’s recognized internationally as one of the premier sites in the world for its ongoing research in lowland rain forests. In particular, work on climate change and its impact on biodiversity in tropical wet forests has become a significant area of study at the station.

Great Tinamou
Common Tody-Flycatcher
endemic Yellow Eyelash Pit-Viper
An extensive system of cement trails offers easy access to primary tropical forest which helps researchers access their research endeavors. A paved path is better than slipping and sliding on muddy trails. The same trails also made it easier for birding…if only the birding were so easy! Rain forest birding is challenging given the dense foliage. With persistence over the next few days, and an assist from one of the local guides, Jamie, we were rewarded with sightings of several species (many were life birds for half the group).
Species included tinamous (Great and Little), Crested Guan, Great Curassow, King Vulture, Hook-billed Kite, Crowned Woodnymph, Gray-breasted Dove, trogons (Slaty-tailed, Gartered, Black-throated), motmots (Rufous and Broad-billed), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Collared Aracari, Olive-throated Parakeet, toucans (Yellow-throated and Keel-billed), woodpeckers (Black-cheeked, Pale-billed), Great Green MaCaw, antshrikes (Fasciated and Black-crowned), woodcreepers (Wedge-billed, Plain-brown, Cocoa, Streak-headed), kingfishers (Green and American Pygmy), Dusky Antbird, Green Ibis (alas not seen by all), 

crossing the suspension bridge
Passerini's Tanager
Plain Xenops, flycatchers (Common Tody-Flycatcher, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-margined, Yellow-olive, Yellow-bellied, Dusky-capped, Social, Gray-capped, White-ringed, Piratic), Bright-rumped Attila, Rufous Mourner, Cinnamon Becard, wrens (Bay, Black-throated, Band-backed, Stripe-breasted), Long-billed Gnatwren, Buff-rumped Warbler, Blue Dacnis, Golden-hooded Tanager, Orange-billed Sparrow, honeycreepers (Green and Shining), Melodious Blackbird, Black-cowled Oriole, Snowy Cotinga, Red-capped Manakin, oropendulas (Chestnut-headed, Montezuma), Olive-backed Euphonia, Red-lored Parrot, Laughing Falcon, Great Kiskadee, Masked Tityra, Black-faced Grosbeak, hummingbirds (Blue-chested and Long-billed Hermit), Pied Puffbird, Long-tailed Tyrant, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Giant Cowbird, and several wintering neotropical warbler species commonly seen in the United State in Spring. A nighttime hike netted us Black-and-white Owl plus some none-feathered friends - an endemic Yellow Eye-lash Viper (look but do not touch) and robust (i.e. large - the size of bullfrogs) Smokey Jungle Frog.

finding the Vermiculated turned out to be easier than photographing it
Jamie and Richard
During one of our passes along a trail we heard a Vermiculated Screech-Owl which also responded to playback. We eventually narrowed down the source of the call to a large dense shrub. Granted the owl is barely 8-inches in height and like many owls roosting during the day prefer to sit still. But it took over ten minutes of squinting and craning our necks into the foliage before it was spotted at eye-level well back in the branches. Hard to see let alone photograph!
After two days of birding La Selva in warm, humid lowland habitat, we journeyed up into the cooler temperatures of the Cordillera de Talamanca with its endemic-rich highland avifauna. Nearly half of the resident bird species here are found only in the mountains of Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama. This pattern of birding a few days in warm, humid conditions and then birding in cooler conditions at higher elevations would continue throughout the tour.

Copé and Carol; our Copé artwork
Our ultimate destination that day was the Savegre Mountain Hotel and Spa. To minimize driving time (and maximize birding opportunities) on one of th elonger driving days, box lunches were in order. As it happened the lunch destination Richard had in mind was a recently opened private property at the home of José Alberto, or as he is more commonly known, the artist “Copé”. Familiar with his work, we have one of his earlier pieces, an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper painted on a leaf with his signature trademark black ants. What a delight then to finally get to meet the artist!

Crested Owl
Spectacled Owl (juvenile)
Thicket Antpitta - a nemesis no more!
Copé’s property was definitely a first visit for us so we weren’t sure what to expect. It wound up being split into two components. First, after picking Copé up at his home, we drove to another piece of his property about a kilometer down the road. With Copé in the lead, we trekked off into lowland forest (muddy lowland forest) bordered by agricultural fields. Copé ushered us to views of roosting Crested Owls, a pair of Spectacled Owls (and a juvenile), a Great Potoo, and other none-feathered wildlife: Casque-headed Lizard and roosting Sac-wing Bats. But the real show stopper was when he gathered us around a clearing and coaxed out a Thicket Antpitta from the shadows! This has been a nemesis bird for us on our previous seven - count them, seven - tours in Costa Rica. So typical of the antpittas, we’d always heard them, but never saw any…until now!

Russet-naped Woodrail
Sac-winged Bats
Casque-headed Lizard
Back at Copé’s house he had enhanced his yard with benches, chairs and feeding stations situated along a small stream/pond. An ideal place for us to have our box lunches and let the birds come to us. Russet-naped Woodrails walked within an arm’s length. White-necked Jacobin, Stripe-throated Hermit and Bronze-tailed Hummingbird flitted in and out. Overall, our three hour visit netted several more trip birds: Chestnut-backed Antbird, Slaty Spinetail, Boat-billed Flycatcher, White-collared Manakin, Squirrel Cuckoo, Gray-breasted Martin, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Short-billed Pigeon, and Yellow-crowned Euphonia.

White-collared Manakin
The rest of the day was spent driving into the Cordillera de Talamanca while enjoying a break from the humid lowlands. Eventually we turned off of Highway 2 (the Costa Rica section of the Pan-American Highway). The highway, also called the Inter-America Highway, spans a 3,400 mile main stretch through Central America beginning at Nuevo Laredo, MX, and ending in Panama City, Panama. Calle San Gerardo, the road we turned onto, is steep and winding as it descends into the San Gerardo Valley past several lodges nestled along the roaring Rio Savegre (famous for its trout fishing). Over the years the road has been improved to such an extent that now, more of it is paved than not. Still, it’s quite a dizzying descent, even for those of us who have been on it before.

our room at Savegre
with Chuck and Delia
We roadside birded our way down to the lodge and after checking into our rooms, relaxed in the lodge’s bar before dinner. There we chanced upon birding friends from Wisconsin, Delia Unson and Chuck Heikkinen who were on a photography tour. We’d last seen them when they were traveling through Arizona. Small world, anyone?
The next morning buoyed by an excellent buffet breakfast (we were not starving!), we squeezed into a “cozy” four-wheel drive vehicle that ferried us well above the lodge’s elevation (already at 7,200-feet) to forested trail heads. From there we wound our way back down to the lodge…far easier walking down than up!

hardly out of the vehicle and we heard - then saw - Resplendent Quetzal (male)
Almost immediately after disembarking, we heard Resplendent Quetzals calling. That got everyone’s attention. Not long after, this aptly named 'resplendent' bird appeared. Little did we know then that throughout the rest of the tour, whenever we found ourselves in Quetzal habitat, that we would be seeing them frequently. Can anyone ever get tired of seeing quetzals?

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
Given seven previous bird tours in Costa Rica, the expectations for the two of us adding life birds was low (but we were ever hopeful). So when a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl suddenly appeared, we were ecstatic - a life bird for us! Like the Thicket Antpitta, this had also been a nemesis heard-only. But there it was, in plain sight being mobbed by songbirds discontent with the owl’s presence. Life’s simple pleasures, eh?

Black Guan
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Spotted Wood-Quail
Other new for the trip birds included Ruddy Pigeon, Red-headed Barbet (a fleeting glimpse by some), Barred Parakeet, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Ochraceous Pewee, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-faced Solitaire, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black-cheeked Warbler, Collared Redstart, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Large-footed Finch, and Yellow-thighed Finch.

Lesser Violetear
White-throated Mountain-gem
Volcano Hummingbird
Birding the lodge’s grounds and feeders yielded more species: Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Black Guan, Spotted Wood-Quail (amazing looks at what is usually a tough bird to find), Band-tailed Pigeon, more hummingbirds (Lesser Violetear, Magnificent, White-throated Mountain-gem, Volcano, Scintillant, Stripe-tailed), Collared Trogon, Mountain Elaenia, Dark Pewee, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Flame-colored Tanager.

first experience at the new (to us) observation deck
proof we did not starve!
A new experience for us was being driven to a spot directly across from the lodge to a deck overlooking the valley. A trail running up the side of the forest attracted some of the group while others were happy to remain on the deck (mainly because of the threat of rain which did finally arrive). Nothing new to report but had better looks at some of the birds seen earlier.

Crested Guan
Acorn Woodpeckers
That evening we bumped into another birding friend, Luke Seitz. We first met Luke when he, at the age of 18, was our replacement volunteer at Tandayapa Lodge (Ecuador 2010). Luke, now in his senior year at Cornel University, has already been guiding professional birding tours. How exciting to see young people like Luke doing so well in the world of birding!

Volcano Junco
After two nights at Savegre, and stuffed with another breakfast, we loaded up our coaster and snaked our way back up to Highway 2 with an eye to visit a series of radio towers on Cerro de la Muerte  (10,800 feet - our highest physical point of the tour) for a couple of species we would not see anywhere else: Volcano Junco and Timberline Wren. Alas, we whiffed on the wren but found a cooperative junco along with a surprise look at a stunning Flame-throated Warbler. Our next destination: Hotel Villa Lapas on the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica.

Buff-throated Saltator
Blue-gray Tanager
Gartered Trogon
"Blue Jeans" poison dart frog
Rufous Motmot
Great-tailed Grackle
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
American Pygmy-Kingfisher
Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher
Scintillant Hummingbird (female)
Magnificent Hummingbird
Rufous-collared Sparrow
trout ponds
White-crowned Parrot
Clay-colored Thrush

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