Monday, May 29, 2017

Costa Rica 2017, Part 3

Before dropping into the San Isidro de El General Valley, one requisite stop has always been at the roadside cafe/gas station, La Georgina. The draw? Much closer looks at Fiery-throated Hummingbirds as they come to eye-level feeders attached to the cafe’s windows.
We would also have one last shot for a Timberline Wren (Richard had one at this location weeks earlier). A wren, while still present, only teased us with vocalizations, never making a satisfactory appearance. Just a small dark object darting through vegetation. Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, however, did put on quite a display.

Great Potoo
Didier and his coaster; always kind to animals
By now we’d come to realize that Didier just wasn’t any driver. He had his own pair of binoculars and frequently, when we stopped for roadside birding, kept an ever watchful eye, helping to locate or relocate birds. On one occasion he pulled off the road to point out a roosting Great Potoo. When we stopped near a business district near the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Technology (Richard needed to drop off copies of his field guide), Didier played a role in helping find a Turquoise Cotinga know to be in the area.

Turquoise Cotinga
Our destination lodge? The Hotel Villa Lapas on the Pacific Coast. Roadside birding netted a few new trip birds. Swallow-tailed Kites started popping up everywhere. The San Isidro Sewage Lagoons: added Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mangrove Swallow, and Crested Caracara. At the mouth of the Baru River on the coast, we ticked Magnificent Frigatebird, Ringed Kingfisher, Cherrie’s Tanager, and Royal Tern. At Laguna en Las vueltas de Parrita we scored Zone-tailed Hawk, Groove-billed Ani, Amazon Kingfisher, and Least Grebe. Didier’s sharp eye found us a perched Gray Hawk.
Lunch at Restauranté La Leda, a spot where we've dined before, either while on tour or when we drove to the beach during our six week cabin rental in San Ramon. Loads of fresh seafood and a chance to check the mudflats in front of the restaurant. At the very least an entertaining display of hundreds of Laughing Gulls vying over scraps of food thrown out by restaurant staff.

seafood options at La Leda
Rio Tarcolitos at Villa Lapas
Once checked into the Hotel Villa Lapas (rooms had welcomed upgrades to the bathrooms since our last visit!) there was still enough daylight for a brief walk around the grounds. Dazzling flybys of Scarlet Macaws, White Ibis, and a cooperative male Painted Bunting skulking in the hotel gardens.
At twilight as we gathered for dinner, we bumped into Richard’s eldest son, Leonardo. Déjà Vu. We had last seen Leonardo at Villa Lapas two years prior when he was leading a Swarovski bird tour. Here he was, leading another Swarovski group. The group was huddled behind Leonardo, patiently waiting for a Spectacled Owl to leave its nest cavity (amidst a cacophony of cicadas).

Spectacled Owl
Scarlet Macaw
Motivated by the proximity of the nest cavity to the dining area, and the promise of hot coffee, the next morning we gathered before daybreak hoping to glimpse the owls coming back to roost after a night of hunting. Coffee in hand, we first heard, then witnessed, an adult Spectacled Owl slip into its nest cavity. A Bare-throated Tiger-Heron also graced us with its presence on the adjacent river while Scarlet Macaws squawked overheard and a Laughing Falcon called from the woods.
During and following breakfast, and before getting aboard our coaster to head over to Carara NP, we added Costa Rican Swift, Rose-throated Becard, Brown Jay, Rufous-and-white Wren, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
While we’re thinking about it, let's share a tip about birding in the humid tropics. If staying in a room with air conditioning, whenever possible, isolate your optics so that in the morning when you step outside, they won’t fog. Specially photo equipment. In the case of staying at Villa Lapas, the room air conditioners were only in the bedrooms. By storing our optics (camera, Scope, bins) overnight in the bathroom and closing the door, the bathroom remained unaffected by the colder air. When we stepped out of our room into the high humidity outside, we had no issues with fogging.

Gray-chested Dove
Carara National Park, with its blend of tropical dry forest and tropical rain forest habitat, always yields a high diversity of bird species. It’s one of our favorites. On our first walk-through, we encountered Muscovy Duck (yes, real ones!), Mississippi Kite, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Long-tailed Manakin, Brown-hooded Parrot, Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Rufous-naped Wren, Rufous-breasted Wren, White-shouldered Tanager, and Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Yellow-throated Toucan exiting nest cavity
Back at Villa Lapas for lunch and following a short siesta, we checked out a known roost for Fiery-billed Aracari and an active nest cavity belonging to Yellow-throated Toucans. An afternoon stroll at Carara NP added Golden-naped Woodpecker, Mealy Parrot, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Rufous Piha, Riverside Wren, Gray-headed Tanager, and Bay-headed Tanager. As the sun sunk lower, our patience at a popular manakin bathing spot was rewarded with repeated close looks at Orange-collared, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins.

Red-capped Manakin
Another must stop: a walk across the Tarcoles River Bridge. Ignoring the motorized traffic noise, from our raised vantage point we observed Roseate Spoonbill, Common Black Hawk, Northern Jacana, and a Cabanis’s Wren (the result of a recent three-way split of the Plain Wren). And loads of crocodiles. Loads.

Striped Basilisk
Prior to breakfast the next morning we traipsed along a recently upgraded trail bordering the Rio Tarcolitos. Highlights of the walk? Band-tailed Barbthroat, Stripe-throated Hermit, and White-whiskered Puffbird.
Past stays at Villa Lapas usually included a river trip on the Tarcoles River. The main target bird? One of Costa Rica’s true endemics, the Mangrove Hummingbird. Those who have been on past river trips recall that finding a small hummingbird in mangroves from a moving boat is at best, difficult. And while the charm of a riverboat cruise is alluring, Richard suggested we eschew the boat this time in favor of driving to a newly opened preserve where Mangrove Hummingbirds were coming to feeders. Always up for something new we agreed to the change. And since we would be heading to our next overnight directly from the reserve, we loaded our luggage and struck out for the reserve.

White-throated Magpie-Jay
There was only one road, Cuacimo Road, a fairly straight gravel road through wetlands, dry grasses and seashore habitats. New for the day: Wood Stork, Brown Pelican, Roadside Hawk, Double-striped Thick-knee, Inca Dove, White-winged Dove, Yellow-headed Caracara, Black-bellied Plover, Laughing Gull, Semipalmated Plover, Tricolored Heron, Whimbrel, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, White-throated Magpie-Jay (otherwise known as the “Sheldon bird” from an episode of the Big Bang Theory), Stripe-headed Sparrow, and Streak-backed Oriole.

roadside birding Cuacimo Road
The recently formed Guacalillo Bird Observatory, once the site of a local bar restaurant on the Playa Guacalillo, was slowly being transformed into a dynamic preserve. Off the beaten path, it’s billed as “the only hummingbird feeding station along the Costa Rica Pacific Coast”. 

not the best shot of a Mangrove Hummingbird but sure beat the boat shots
Carol with one of the owner/biologists
Shortly after arriving, we were thrilled to see Mangrove Hummingbirds coming to feeders hanging from the deck and perched in nearby mangrove trees (much easier than from a moving boat!). In addition to the the endemic hummingbird we added wading birds (Great, Snowy, Little Blue Heron, and Reddish Egret) plus Osprey, Green Kingfisher, and Green-breasted Mango. Future plans to attract rails are in the works. Hopefully the observatory will fare well in the future.
Back on the coaster we found ourselves once more heading to higher ground (i.e., cooler temps) on our way to our next birding destination, Monteverde. While leaving the lowland dry forest, our roadside birding found the only tour view of Turquoise-browed Motmot before making the transition into dramatic cloud forest scenery.

on the road to Monteverde
Large sections of the road to get to Monteverde still remain gravel making it difficult at times for large tourist-laden buses. The area had seen a lot of rain recently so it wasn’t surprising to come upon a large tourist bus stalled on a particularly muddy and steep grade. Scores of passengers had disembarked (some were comically trying to hitch a ride with us). Of course our smaller coaster with Didier at the wheel had no traction problems as we sped on by wondering if they ever did make to Monteverde.

approaching the small town of Monteverde
As we approached the valleys surrounding Monteverde the sky darkened. The wind picked up as we watched rain squalls streak across the opposite side of a valley. A spectacular double rainbow was our reward. The air definitely had a chill to it by the time we arrived at the Montana Monteverde Hotel. Settled into our rooms, we trekked to the main building (rain gear in hand) to enjoy happy hour in the hotel bar, then dinner and run through our checklists.

view from our room
The small town of Monteverde is host to the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, or as many Gringos know it, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. As such it serves as an ecotourist mecca averaging 70,000 visitors per year.
Visiting Monteverde (founded by Quakers) can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand its six ecological zones and extremely high biodiversity are huge draws to nature-minded tourists. On the other hand, its six ecological zones and extremely high biodiversity are huge draws to nature-minded tourists. The trick to visiting is to get there early before the busloads. Or, return late in the afternoon after most of the buses have left.
To that end, our early morning avoided early crowds. And, owing to Richard’s status as a preeminent author/guide, he was able to obtain entry for us a full hour before the park officially opened.
Our reward for an early arrival included Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Emerald Toucanet (Blue-throated), Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Rufous-capped Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and a surprise to many (including Richard), an Azure-hooded Jay.

Orange-bellied Trogon (female)
cute but a handful of trouble if they think you have food
As the crowds on the trail swelled we left the park to seek out a smaller, less frequented reserve, Reserva Bosque Nuboso Monteverde. There we added Green-fronted Lancebill, more quetzal sightings, Orange-bellied Trogon, Plain Antvirio, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, and Slate-throated Redstart. Capuchin monkeys hanging out around the small visitor center provided lots of entertainment.

our pizza for lunch stop
Rather than travel all the way back to the hotel for lunch we dined at a local pizza place followed by some locally made ice cream before heading back to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve for a late afternoon look-see. Nothing new but there was a brief opportunity to shop in the gift store and saunter down to a nearby collection of hummingbird feeders. Again, nothing new but enjoyed close up looks of several of the hummingbird species we’d been seeing throughout the tour.
The next morning, with low clouds laced with mist all around, we ate breakfast and ticked two trip birds from the hotel restaurant’s balcony: Steely-vented Hummingbird and Bronzed Cowbird.

many, many more steps like these on the Encantado Trail
Dodging rain drops, we loaded our luggage into the coaster and set out for the Santa Elena Preserve on the outskirts of Monteverde. Here we tried one last ditch attempt for a Three-wattled Bellbird, known to nest in the preserve. If you ask some birders (John?), the bellbird is considered the true gem of Monteverde, not the quetzal. So typical of Monteverde's cloud forest weather patterns, the preserve was socked in by dense clouds, mist and a light rain which severely reduced our visibility and hampered efforts. No bellbirds. However, we did get great looks at Green Hermits.
An upside was that most everyone got to experience birding with umbrellas while trudging up and down the Encantado Trail with an endless supply of steps that sorely tested our legs and knees. An upside? Oh, yeah. A few wiser souls stayed behind enjoying the warmth of the gift shop and hot chocolate. And they still got the Green Hermits that were also around the visitor center.
The rest of the day was spent journeying to Arenal Volcano—an impressive, conical peak rising more than 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains. Impressive, that is, if you can see it. Like Poas Volcano, the weather has to cooperate. Our last three visits to Arenal? It hasn’t.
Our route snaked through undulating hills and valleys, eventually approaching the west end of Lake Arenal where we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant about 25 minutes beyond the town of Tiliran. Crossing into Alejuela Provence we found ourselves entering Arenal Volcano National Park. Shortly after crossing the Arenal Dam causeway, we turned off onto Arenal Peninsula Road. This road passed a section of the national park, known as Arenal Peninisula Sector. We had passed the same location in 2015 while back then it was undergoing reconstruction.
The now newly completed visitor center (opened just a month prior) was the trailhead for a wide, paved main trail that gently sloped down to the Mirador Largo Arenal observation tower, a 3 kilometer round-trip walk. There were a number of birds along the way but new to the trip were: Double-toothed Kite and Olive-sided Flycatcher.
Arenal Peninsula Road eventually merged with the La Fortuna - El Castillo Road where Didier found another roosting Great Potoo. This road lead us to the Arenal Observatory Lodge where we were once again found ourselves on the Caribbean side of the country with another chance to find a few bird species we had missed at La Selva

Green Honeycreeper (male)
Our rooms were, as they have in the past, were located on the second floor (again sans any elevator) of the main lodge building overlooking the dining hall and deck with (hopefully) views of the volcano and Lake Arenal in the distance. Time enough to sit on our individual decks before for dinner, enjoy a little wine, and take in the scenery.

Montezuma Oropendula
During our 2015 visit the weather had been most foul. Lots of rain. The weather threatened to be about the same early the next morning after a night of on again/off-again rain. Some of it heavy. As planned we gathered at a second floor observation area overlooking bird feeders located in front of the massive lodge deck.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
While in the observation area we sadly discovered a dead Scarlet-thighed Dacnis on the floor, an apparent victim of a window encounter. It’s mate was sitting motionless next to it. It took some coaxing but we finally got the surviving bird outside where it sat in a nearby tree for several minutes, seemingly waiting for a mate that we knew would never arrive.
Both before and following breakfast, we mingled with other lodge guests on the massive deck while watching birds undeterred by the wet weather attacking loads of fresh fruit. The stars of the show were Montezuma Oropendula displaying their comical up-side-down gurgling calls and a female Great Curassow demolishing whole bananas (much to the delight of coatis on the ground below the platform feeder where chunks of bananas fell).

Christian scoping out wildlife for guests
Carol, Christian, Tom - so happy to see this young man mature
Christian Campos has been a wildlife guide at the lodge ever since we met him on our first visit to Arenal in 2009. He was preparing to lead the daily early morning wildlife walk.  Christian is now one of the senior lead guides. He is well versed in the local wildlife - but we know his real passion is the birds. What a delight to see him doing so well.
There are numerous trails at Arenal but the weather looked as though it wasn’t going to cooperate so we boarded our coaster and made our way back down the La Fortuna - El Castillo Road toward La Fortuna where we finally got a break in the weather.

seated at Sendero Bogarín
White-throated Crake
Olivaceous Piculet (female)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (male)
Our first stop was at a private preserve, Sendero Bogarín. Perched on benches we observed well-stocked feeders and a small pond before exploring some of the preserve’s local trails. Gray-headed Chachalaca, stunning looks at White-throated (Gray-faced) Crake, nesting Olivaceous Piculet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Black-headed Saltator, Black-striped Sparrow, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Boat-billed Heron
Common Pauraque on nest
Rather than make the long trip back to the lodge for lunch, we dined at Rancho Perla. Restaurant staff helpfully alerted us to roosting birds on a series of ponds behind the restaurant. The owner’s wife also showed us a nesting Pauraque. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, and Grayish Saltator were added to our burgeoning trip list.
While in the La Fortuna the skies did in fact clear. So much so that eventually we started getting looks at Arenal Volcano’s peak. By the time we got back to the lodge, the views from our rooms were quite spectacular.

finally - the skies opened up!
Taking advantage of the clearing weather (after a short rest) we hiked the lodge’s Garden and Homiga Trails through guava trees, tropical pine trees, Cecropias, fig trees, gingers, flowering heliconias and hibiscus. Varieties of verbena produced a few new hummingbirds: Brown Violetear and Violet-headed Hummingbird. Along the trails we added Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Carmoli’s Tanager.

inclement weather means viewing from inside
Great Curassow (female) pigging out on the feeding platform
The next day, March 20, was our last full day of birding. Inclement weather had returned but we donned rain gear for an early morning stroll through the garden. Our effort paid off as we added added Black-crested Coquette, not a bird seen on every visit to Arenal. New to the list were Lineated Woodpecker, Cinnamon Becard, Wood Thrush, and appearing at the deck feeders, an Emerald Tanager.

Catarata del Toro
The route back to San José included a 2-hour plus stop at Catarata del Toro, a small Bed and Breakfast/Restaurant with an incredible waterfall. At 300-feet it’s claimed to be the tallest in Costa Rica.

Violet Sabrewing
Howler monkey youngster with mom looking us over
Surrounding the facility there are numerous feeders and flowering gardens and a short hiking trail. The hike down to the base of the waterfall isn’t terribly long but does involve many steps. After the stairs ordeal at Monteverde, no one was interested. But we did hike the short forested trail with overlooks of the waterfall. Our target bird was the Black-bellied Hummingbird which put on quite a show as did a Bat Falcon hunting over the valley. And while we had already seen Bananquits at earlier stops, the ones frequenting the gardens gave us much better looks.
We returned to the Central Valley and the Hotel Buena Vista with plenty of time to relax and ready our bags for our return trips to the states the next morning. We said our goodbyes to Didier as we would be taking a taxi or hotel shuttle to the airport the next morning. He really outdid himself this time!

Rick's Birthday celebration
Our celebratory evening meal revealed that we had tallied 375 species including 32 species of hummingbirds, 40 species of flycatchers, 14 species of wrens, 25 species of tanagers and their allies, 9 species of woodpeckers, and 22 species of warblers (many were wintering migrants we often see in the United States). Peggy and Rick in particular added over 300 life birds. We personally added two life birds plus six more to our Costa Rica country list which now stands at 634 species. By the way, our last full day of birding happened to be Rick’s birthday. We know he would have enjoyed celebrating with his family in Virginia…but 300-plus life birds in Costa Rica? Not a bad second choice.
As we do with all our trips, we asked everyone to submit their top five favorite birds of the tour. For those traveling to Costa Rica and adding so many new life birds it was an overwhelming task. “Favorites” changed on a near daily basis.
Facing a long travel day, by 9:00 that evening, we made out way back to our room hoping to get some sleep. Some of us wound up getting more sleep than we had bargained.
Waking with a start at 3:50, we jumped out of bed, rushed to gather our (thankfully already packed) luggage so we could join the others already waiting in the taxi… the taxi which was to depart the hotel for the airport at 4:00 A.M.! Note to self: always make sure your alarm is set to the correct part of the day. For example, if you mean to get up in the A.M., make sure it isn’t set to P.M.. How embarrassing! But, we did make it to the airport on time. Just with a lot more adrenaline pumping than planned.
The rest of the journey back to Arizona was more relaxed with no delays. The hour long drive back to the RV after retrieving our truck had us arrive by late afternoon, tired and happy to be home from yet another great bird tour with friends in Costa Rica.

our 2017 tour route (clockwise)
American Pygmy-Kingfisher
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Lesson's Motmot
Smooth-billed Ani
Yellow-throated Toucan
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Orange-fronted Parakeet
Sun? Where is the sun? Hotel Monteverde
Resplendent Quetzal (male)
Tawny-throated Leaftosser
Broad-billed Motmots
Blue-gray Tanager
Yellow-throated Euphonia
raucous Great Kiskadee
Golden-hooded Tanager
Masked Tree Frog - Arenal Observatory Lodge
Eyelash Pit-Viper
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Lake Arenal sunset
last evening at Hotel Buena Vista
Laughing Falcon
bar art at Arenal Observatory Lodge
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Resplendent Quetzal (female)
departing San José and flight over Mexico

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