Trip report: Costa Rica Custom tour (March 2014) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods.
Co-guided by Cameron Cox.

This custom tour followed the itinerary of our popular COSTA RICA: THE INTOTOUR, although added 2 extra sites (Arenal & La Ensenada).

Costa Rica is one of the World’s premier destinations for both birding and wildlife watching. This unique country boasts the enviable statistic that 25% of its total land area is protected, and it is is regularly classified as one of the greenest countries in the world. A network of super lodges, within a small country allows easy and comfortable access to a variety of habitats, and produces a diverse bird list in even a short visit to this phenomenal nature destination. Evidence of its credentials as both a premier birding and wildlife destination were proven on this tour, which bore a bird list of over 500 species in two weeks, including 30 species of raptor, 6 owls, 2 potoos, 35 hummingbirds, 5 kingfishers, 4 motmots, 3 puffbirds, 8 trogons, 14 parrots, 12 woodpeckers, 26 warblers, 17 wrens, 13 thrushes, and a host of other neotropical groups represented, including bellbird, tinamou, tityra, becard, greenlet, tapaculo, antbird, leaftosser, foliage-gleaner, woodhaunter, woodcreeper, treerunner, spinetail, fruitcrow, tyrannulet, elaenia, gnatwren and gnatcatcher, among others. The bird experience was coupled with a myriad of other wildlife experiences; including regular encounters with sloths at La Selva; close-ups of colorful Strawberry Poison Frogs there too; marauding groups of White-nosed Coatis stripping fruiting trees of their bounty in the mountains; and a variety of cool reptiles from a bright yellow Eyelash Pit-Viper to giant, prehistoric-looking lizards called Spinytail Iguanas (Ctenosaurs), and basilisk lizards skipping across the water’s surface, a behavior which has earned them another name, the “Jesus Christ Lizard”. Botanically, it was also an interesting time with the lavish garden of our San Jose hotel adorned with bright pink, yellow, red, and purple blossoms during our visit; and some of the trees within the wider countryside sporting vibrant blooms in this dry season too, frequently reflected in their names with such evocative monikers as “Golden Shower”, “Pink Trumpet”, and “Flamboyant”.

The substantial bird list was produced by dipping into a variety of habitats as we crisscrossed the country; we began our tour in the birdy gardens of our San Jose hotel, before we left for the middle elevation forests of the northern, Caribbean slope at Braulio Carrillo; from there we dropped down into the steamy lowlands of the Caribbean slope, before we moved west, and back into the Caribbean foothills at Arenal where the impressive volcanic cone itself took center stage. From there we headed up into the mountains and our first experience of Costa Rica’s lush cloudforests at world famous Monteverde. Following our first session in the mountains we moved west into the tropical dry forest and wetlands of the northwest Pacific around La Ensenada, and also visited neighboring Hacienda Solimar, where Jabiruswere the main attraction along with a host of other waterbirds, raptors, shorebirds and dry country species. Moving out of the northern Pacific lowlands we traveled to the decidedly wetter lowlands of the South Pacific at Carara National Park, where we birded not only the humid forests within the park, but also enjoyed a relaxing boat ride along the Tarcoles River,exploring muddy edges and mangroves that flank the river for a myriad waterbirds. Lastly, we returned once more to the mountains, although this time to the higher elevation mountains of the Talamanaca Cordillera and the Oak forests of the Savegre valley, home to Resplendent Quetzal and many other montane endemics shared only with neighboring Panama.

By covering lowlands at near sea level up into the high mountain forests and paramos up to above 3,000m/9,854ft, as well as ensuring we covered the main regions of both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes, and the Central Valley too, we ensured a healthy and varied bird list, and picked up many regional endemics (over 60 endemics were seen), and specialties along the way. Some of the many avian highlights included multiple sightings of the incomparable Resplendent Quetzal in the mountains; two striking cotingas in the lowlands and foothills in the form of the ghostly-white Snowy Cotinga at La Selva, and the electric blue Turquoise Cotinga near the town of San Isidro; the inconceivably bright emerald-and-yellow Golden-browed Chlorophonia was very popular in Monteverde’s bromeliad-laden cloud forests; the strange Boat-billed Heron was both comical and confiding, exposing its namesake bill to us at a traditional roost site in Carara National Park; a confiding covey of Black-breasted Wood-Quails within the grounds of our Monteverde lodge. A good run on nightbirds saw us bag a brace of day-roosting potoos (Great Potoo near La Selva and Northern Potoo west of Monteverde); an extremely obliging Dusky Nightjar in the picturesque Savegre Valley; and 6 species of owl, including a dramatic pair of Black-and-white Owls at Arenal Observatory Lodge, a roosting pair of Spectacled Owls at Hacienda Solimar, and a fantastic Striped Owl which rewarded Happy and Sam for their late night efforts.

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