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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in July

2022 Narrative

In Brief: Summer is a fascinating time in Costa Rica, with a lovely combination of fewer tourists and more cute baby birds! Our tour started in the highlands with Resplendent Quetzal and Fiery-throated Hummingbird, continued down to Rancho Naturalista for incredible views of Black-and-yellow Tanager plus multiple Sunbitterns and a last-minute male Snowcap, on to La Selva with birds, sloths, and snakes, and to the far north of the country for Nicaraguan Grackle, Yellow-breasted Crake, and great views of Tody and Keel-billed Motmot plus a bonus Baird’s Tapir. Phew! It was a whirlwind two weeks, packed full of excellent birding, delicious food, and fun camaraderie.

In Detail: Our July Costa Rica tour kicked off in fine fashion on the outskirts of Cartago, where a random grassy field produced multiple recently split Grass Wrens (doing the splits on grass, no less) before we headed up higher into the Talamanca highlands. Our time in the Savegre Valley area was primarily to look for one of Costa Rica’s most famous residents, Resplendent Quetzal. Although we struggled on the first day, our second morning paid off in fine form: multiple quetzals, including stunning views of a male perched in a roadside fruiting tree. In addition to the quetzals, we ended up with a long list of other highlights from easy roadsides and gardens nearby: incredible views of Flame-throated Warbler (coming to a rice feeder!!), Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, the most cooperative Streak-breasted Treehunter in the history of the planet, many Sulphur-winged Parakeets, cute Torrent Tyrannulets, American Dipper, Black-and-yellow Phainoptila, plenty of Long-tailed Silkies, great (if brief) views of Wrenthrush, and the devil-eyed Volcano Junco up at Cerro de la Muerte.

After our time in the cool highlands, we started our long loop across the Caribbean side of the country, with our first stop being the famous Rancho Naturalista. It was much warmer here, with a completely different suite of birds than Savegre. We spent a good amount of time watching the hummingbird feeders and Verbena bushes, where we enjoyed marvelous views of one of the star birds of Rancho Naturalista…Snowcap! Several females were seen, and finally on our last morning, a gorgeous merlot-colored male. Black-crested Coquette was a great bonus, too!

Our full day at Rancho started in the forest with Red-throated Ant-tanagers at the moth sheet, before moving on to some roadside birding nearby. Checking the river, we soon found a very cooperative Sunbittern, and then noticed Russet-naped Wood-rails walking around behind it! The White-throated Flycatcher nearby wasn’t quite as flashy. Down the road into some better forest, we encountered a roving flock of Black-and-yellow Tanagers, which came right into the low roadside trees. Wow! Best views ever. But the day was not over, and we finished at the hummingbird pools near the lodge. It’s an unforgettable experience to look down upon the shimmering hummingbirds as they splash into the pools. Several Crowned Woodnymphs and a particularly snazzy Purple-crowned Fairy made the trip down and back up the stairs well worth it!

From Rancho, we headed towards La Selva, but not without a fantastic stop at Cope’s place on the way. Cope is a local naturalist and artist extraordinaire, who always has some fun birds (and other critters) to show us! We started at his feeder setup, where we were treated to fantastic views of Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermit, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Collared Aracari, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and more. We tore ourselves away to head into some nearby forest patches, where a muddy cow trail led us to a spectacular juvenile Spectacled Owl in full view, while the adult remained more hidden nearby. Another trail…this one even muddier…was good for a group of tiny Honduran White Bats roosting under a leaf, and for the few who braved the extra mud, a roosting pair of Crested Owls! Another quick check of the feeders and we were shown two enormous Hercules beetles, and another Blue-Jeans Poison-Dart Frog, but we finally had to head onward to our lodging near La Selva.

The famous La Selva Biological Station is always an exciting destination, full of fun birds, reptiles, butterflies, and mammals. This visit was no different: we started off on the entrance road with some mixed flock action, including good views of Rufous Mourner and Pied Puffbird. Once inside the reserve, we enjoyed spectacular views of White-whiskered Puffbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Broad-billed Motmot, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth, and even a Semiplumbeus Hawk perched right above the trail! Even the hot afternoon was productive, with two incredible Eyelash Pit-Vipers, a pair of roosting Middle American Screech-Owls, and a family of Great Tinamous foraging just off the trail.

From La Selva, we worked our way north towards Caño Negro, but not without getting distracted by swifts in the parking lot of our lodge (including a few Spot-fronted and White-chinned!) and an improvised stop at Cinchona (great feeders with tons of Violet Sabrewings, Coppery-headed Emeralds, a family of Prong-billed Barbets, and much more!). Once we reached our destination near the Nicaraguan border, we enjoyed a fine afternoon boat trip through the wetlands of Medio Queso. Our local guide, Rosi, was fantastic and helped us find a number of awesome birds: the highly-localized Nicaraguan Grackle performed well, along with a female Nicaraguan Seed-finch, plus a stunning Black-collared Hawk, multiple Pinnated Bitterns, a single Yellow-breasted Crake, and a couple of sneaky Least Bitterns. Wow!

The next morning we took another boat ride in a different part of this massive wetland complex. Although not quite as birdy as the previous afternoon, we still struck gold with a Boat-billed Heron and a stunning Green-and-rufous Kingfisher that flew by our boat no more than a meter away!

We arrived at Celeste Mountain Lodge, the last destination of our tour, with pleasant weather and relatively few new birds left to look for! However, it was quality over quantity for our time exploring the Celeste area. First and foremost, the quality of the food…oh my. Costa Rican food prepared by a classically-trained French chef? Yes, please. Furthermore, between our visits to the lodge trail, the Celeste waterfall, and various roadsides and gardens, we scored phenomenal views of both Tody and Keel-billed Motmots, along with a supporting cast including Rufous-winged Tanager, Dull-mantled Antbird, Barred Antshrike, and White Hawk.

Perhaps the highlight, though, was our evening excursion to a nearby lodge, where we heard rumors that we’d have a good chance of seeing Baird’s Tapir. Well, we needn’t have worried…shortly after we arrived, we were face-to-face with an incredible tapir munching on fallen guava fruits just a few meters away! Wow! A new animal for me, and only the second time our driver Enrique had seen one. We followed this up with a night walk through a little garden, with tons of frogs (including the enigmatic Red-eyed Tree-frog) and a few snakes. What a great way to wrap up!

Just like that, it was time to head back to San Jose for our flights home. We had a wonderful time exploring the birdy nooks and crannies of the Caribbean slope and ended up with an impressive number of awesome experiences with birds, mammals, and reptiles. This tiny country never fails to impress, and it sure helps to travel with such a fun, flexible, sharp group of people. Thank you all!

Created: 14 November 2022