Trip report: Costa Rica custom tour (March 2016) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods and Jose Illanes. This was a custom tour.

Costa Rica is indisputably one of the World’s greatest birding countries; a small country hemmed in by the Caribbean Sea on one side and Pacific Ocean on the other, it is dissected in the center with a series of mountain ranges that are rich in bird species endemic to the region. A series of excellent national and private protected areas provide plentiful habitats for a staggering array of species within a small country that barely exceeds the US state of West Virginia in size. This tour was set up for a bird club from Africa, much along the lines of our regular Costa Rica Introtour; it visited some of the most revered birding sites in the country, but added another too, in the form of Arenal Observatory Lodge, perched in full view of the dramatic volcanic cone of the same name. One of the many appeals to birding Costa Rica is that in a short time a variety of different birding regions can be visited, and a large bird list compiled. This tour set out to do just that; we started out within the dry Central Valley, near where San Jose’s international airport is located; after that we took our first dip into the foothill forests of the Caribbean slope in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Having descended into this wet and humid area from the drier Central Valley, we continued to drop in altitude after this as we visited one of the most famous tropical research facilities in the world, La Selva Biological Station. After two nights there we returned to the middle elevations on the Caribbean side of the mountains, although this time were based at the superb Arenal Observatory Lodge. After there, we ascended higher into the mountains, where we visited several reserves in the Monteverde area, where some of our birding was done within moss-drenched cloudforests. A stark change in scene followed as we descended to near sea level on the Pacific side of the mountains, where we visited the lowland jungles of Carara National Park, and also took a leisurely boat ride along the Tarcoles River. Our final stop of the tour saw us return to the mountains, and cloudforests, but this time higher still, into the Oak forests in and around the Savegre Valley.

By spending time in all of these markedly different areas, we racked up a bird list of 447 species, more than 420 of which were seen. The highlights were many and varied, as Costa Rica boats a veritable bounty of stunning tropical bird species. To highlight this, when it came to the voting for the top birds of the tour, 23 different species were nominated. Included on this list of popular birds were Black-crested Coquettes seen searching for nectar among the flowers of our lodge in Arenal; a pair of Great Tinamous seen having a prolonged, and sometimes violent, territorial dispute in the lowland jungle at La Selva; dramatic Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans seen in the same area-true “cartoon birds”; the fiery male Orange-collared Manakin found just in the nick of time at Carara; the tame, regular pair of Black-and-white Owls at Arenal; an obscenely accommodating Spotted Antbird that thrilled the photographers in particular at the same site; another “photographer’s bird” in the form of an obliging Turquoise-browed Motmot near Carara (photo above); the electric male Painted Bunting in our lodge garden near there too; the male Turquoise Cotinga seen during a short, but thrilling, stop on the outskirts of San Isidro; a surprisingly cooperative Agami Heron that showed to all along a forested rivulet at La Selva; several bright Flame-throated Warblers that lit up the trees in Savegre; a striking Ocellated Antbird hiding in the shadowy undergrowth of the forest in Arenal; the conspicuous Acorn Woodpeckers of the Savegre Hotel and Spa; the unusually tame Spotted Wood-Quails on the same hotel grounds; the always popular, and dare I say “cute”, Collared Redstart in the same Oak forests; and the only hummingbird to make the selection, the immaculate White-throated Mountain-Gem, which attended the birdy feeders in the same hotel too. Lastly, from the beautiful to the just plain odd, in the form of a small rookery of Boat-billed Herons seen during a very popular boat trip through the mangroves of the Tarcoles River. And, these were just the ones that did NOT make the top five! Surprising and handsome omissions from this larger selection included, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Baird’s and Collared Trogons, Long-tailed Manakin, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia, but then I guess this merely illustrates what an extraordinary place for birds that Costa Rica is. It is extremely popular for good reason.

After the votes were in, the final TOP FIVE BIRDS OF THE TOUR were as follows:

1 Scarlet Macaw (Tarcoles)
2 Resplendent Quetzal (Monteverde)
3 Three-wattled Bellbird (Monteverde)
4 Wrenthrush (Los Quetzales NP, near Savegre)
5 Fiery-billed Aracari (Hotel Villa Lapas Garden, near Carara)

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