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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in Spring

2023 Narrative

In Brief:  TWO great antswarms, Scarlet and Great Green Macaws, Resplendent Quetzal, motmots including Keel-billed, trogons including Lattice-tailed, fast-moving mixed flocks, squadrons of White-collared Swifts whizzing by, barbets and toucans and curassows on feeders…and did I mention ant-swarms? Did I mention Ocellated and Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds hopping around nearly within touching distance? Did I also mention Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo?! There is so much diversity packed into Costa Rica, and this year’s tour had a great time sampling a broad mix of habitats and birdlife. And there were mammals, too, with a baby Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth and a curious Northern Tamandua particularly memorable. Costa Rica always holds so many memorable sightings, all connected with good infrastructure, comfortable lodging, and tasty food. Of course, we couldn’t have done it without our fantastic more-than-a-driver, Enrique. Until next time!

In Detail: We departed San Jose quite early and headed for the highlands, with a brief stop in Cartago along the way. Our hoped-for Grass Wrens weren’t very cooperative, as some humans were actively mowing the field, but we enjoyed excellent views of a pair of White-eared Ground-Sparrow plus a good intro to more common and widespread species. Once we reached the Talamanca mountains, new birds came fast and furious, with some mixed flocks producing specialties like Yellow-winged Vireo, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, and Black-capped Flycatcher. A pair of Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers played hard to get but eventually settled into a small fruiting tree for everyone to enjoy. Certainly, the biggest highlight, thanks to a tip from another group of birders, was a stunning little Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl sitting high in the canopy for several minutes. Excellent views in the scope and even a few phone-scoped images were taken!

Lunch was at the famous Paraiso Quetzal, complete with its amazing hummingbird feeders (Fiery-throated, Talamanca, and Volcano Hummingbirds were particularly numerous) and insanely close views of Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. Our first and much appreciated Golden-browed Chlorophonias were in a nearby tree, and another Black-and-yellow Silky snuck through the surrounding trees. Eventually, we dropped down into the Savegre Valley and settled into our comfortable lodging, with a quiet late afternoon stroll producing our first Black Guan, a pair of American Dippers, and Torrent Tyrannulet.

Understandably, most of the group had a particular bird in mind for the next morning…the king of the Savegre Valley, and one of the most beautiful birds in the world, Resplendent Quetzal. Thankfully, luck was on our side. A nearby fruiting tree produced a dazzling male quetzal, sitting in full view for as long as we could stand to watch it! Of course, the spectacle also attracted about 80 other people, so we eventually went back to the lodge for breakfast and continued on with our birding. High up at Cerro de la Muerte, our hoped-for Volcano Juncos performed well, along with unexpectedly good views of more than 100 White-collared Swifts. Back down in the valley to Miriam’s for lunch, where an excellent feeder setup produced close views of and photos of Acorn Woodpecker, Flame-colored Tanager, Large-footed Finch, Mountain Thrush, and even some quick Spotted Wood-Quail running through the shrubbery down below.

After a short post-lunch break, we continued further down the valley for another walk through the forest. It was quiet at first, but we eventually enjoyed a number of nice birds including Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Philadelphia Vireo, Collared and Slate-throated Whitestarts, and a very cooperative Black-faced Solitaire. Those who opted to stay out until dusk were rewarded with a very quick Dusky Nightjar.

A final morning in the highlands (with another pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonia and striking Yellow-thighed Brushfinch, but no quetzal at the fruiting tree, showing how lucky we were yesterday!) and we were off to the Pacific, transitioning into a very different climate and set of birds! One stop produced close Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, a pair of Gray-cowled Wood-Rails, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and some common tanagers including the stunning Scarlet-rumped, which we’d become very familiar with for the rest of the tour. A delicious roadside lunch was also good for Gray-headed Chachalaca, Piratic Flycatcher, and Red-crowned Woodpecker, among others. But the real treat was a stop at the Rincon river, at the base of the Osa Peninsula. Here, we were amazed by several Yellow-billed Cotingas flying around and perching, certainly the best show I’ve ever experienced in the mid-afternoon!

The next three nights were spent at the delightful Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge, with owners Liz and Abraham making sure we were comfortable and very well-fed. Birding here is always exciting, and this year was no different. We split our time between the narrow forest trails and easy roadsides, with a whole range of birds to keep us occupied. One highlight was Turquoise Cotinga, which Steve adeptly picked out on a very distant hillside. Even a mile away, the shocking blue was certainly visible in the scope! Little Tinamou and hoards of Blue Ground-Doves were enjoyed at the feeders, along with endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. The normally shy Black-faced Antthrush strutted around the compost pile during breakfast. Dazzling Scarlet Macaws were a frequent sight, a young Boat-billed Heron was much appreciated, and Slaty-tailed Trogon performed brilliantly. Roadside trees were loaded with Yellow-throated Toucans and Fiery-billed Aracaris. Trail walks were tough work, with rewards including Orange-collared and Red-capped Manakins, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Black-hooded Antshrike. We were even lucky enough to run into a pair of Scaly-throated Leaftossers foraging on the trail, seemingly quite oblivious to our presence!

We took the bus out on our final afternoon to nearby Playa Sándalo, where our main target was in the bag within about 5 minutes…the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird! Plus cooperative Mangrove Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler, and even a Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth that Enrique found near the parking lot! And then Amy spotted a White-necked Puffbird from the bus as we drove away, and then a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys showed brilliantly right over the road…phew! What an afternoon.

Too soon, it was time to head away from the heat and humidity and birds of the Osa and make our way up the Pacific coast. A last-ditch stop on the way produced great views of Baird’s Trogon (and more Yellow-billed Cotingas!), and we were lucky enough to see an adorable baby Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth after our picnic lunch. During our drive up the coast to Cerro Lodge, we transition to much drier habitat, with a shift in birds accordingly. Gray-lined Hawks become Gray Hawks, Smooth-billed Anis become Groove-billed Anis, and we enter the realm of things like the exquisite Turquoise-browed Motmot. It’s a great example of how much diversity is packed into this little country!

Our boat trip on the Tárcoles River the following morning is always enjoyable, and this year certainly continued the trend. The temperature was perfect, and there was always something to look at; Bare-throated Tiger-Herons all around, Yellow-naped Parrots flying over, Least Sandpipers and Whimbrels on the mudflats, both night-herons plus a couple Boat-billed Herons, tons of Magnificent Frigatebirds, a cooperative pair of Mangrove Vireos (eventually), and even a kingfisher sweep, with an incredible 10-minute view of American Pygmy Kingfisher just a few meters from the boat!

From there, we continued north to have lunch at Ensenada Lodge, truly within the dry deciduous forest of the northwest. Enrique struck again when he found us a roosting Pacific Screech-Owl on the lodge grounds; other highlights included Black-headed Trogon, another pair of Double-striped Thick-knee, and a band of mobbing birds that included Banded Wren, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Birding at Monteverde was hampered by the wind and rain; there wasn’t much vocalizing but with some time and effort we still managed to see some great birds. The Cloud Forest Reserve itself was good for Sooty-faced Finch and Green-fronted Lancebill, plus a quick pair of Resplendent Quetzal (this time quite high and backlit) and the most cooperative Yellowish Flycatcher in the history of the world. The hummingbird feeders were mobbed with humans but the hummingbirds were unfazed; our first Magenta-throated Woodstars were zipping around along with stunning Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds. An afternoon at slightly lower elevations produced a surprise army antswarm, with perhaps as many as eight Northern Barred-Woodcreepers and fifteen Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes in attendance (!!), along with a couple of rare Ruddy Woodcreepers, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. The striking male Long-tailed Manakin nearby was the icing on the cake.

Next, we descended from Monteverde to Arenal, where the wind and mist continued but the big surprise of the tour was just around the corner. Thanks to a tip from a local friend, we were hoping to find army ants on a trail near the lodge, and find them we did! Wow…what an incredibly special experience, and certainly the most stunning antswarm I’ve ever seen! We started with the antbirds, of course, as they were so focused on foraging that they barely noticed all of us humans nearby. Spotted Antbirds in particular showed absolutely no fear, coming within inches of our feet! Bicolored Antbirds were almost equally bold. The star antbird, however, must be the spectacular Ocellated. At one point I had five in one binocular view! The male Great Antshrike was just a bonus, but we soon had a breakfast reservation to pull us away…only temporarily; of course, we quickly returned to the antswarm as soon as we were done eating. A bit of patience and a new vantage point paid off bigtime when an enormous, long-tailed bird popped up over some roots…Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo!! One of the holy grails of the Neotropics, and it kept getting closer and closer, allowing us to study the amazing iridescent purple tail, shaggy crest, and scaly neck pattern…wow, wow, wow. Truly incredible!

A few more gems around Arenal before we had to leave included the diminutive Black-crested Coquette in the garden, and even a Northern Tamandua that Enrique found crossing the road! From there we headed further east, with a very productive lunch stop on the way that surrendered the scarce Keel-billed Motmot and astonishing views of Uniform Crake out in the open. Our next few days would be spent in the lowlands of the Sarapiquí region, cleaning up plenty of new birds for the tour.

Our morning at La Selva started off with a bit of rain, perhaps adding to a flurry of canopy activity shortly thereafter. The star of the show was Snowy Cotinga, at least two of which were seen on the top of a bare tree. Finally, we connected with good views of Keel-billed Toucan, and the rest of the morning produced various goodies such as Middle American Screech-Owl, Spot-fronted Swift (woohoo!), Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, and Black-crowned Antshrike. We moved on in the afternoon to visit our friend Cope, who was kind enough to show us roosting Crested and Spectacled Owls…absolutely stunning views, totally in the open, low down! And he also found a roosting Great Potoo for us! A perfect way to wrap up the day.

Braulio Carrillo is situated a bit higher up into the foothills, so our trail walking here always produces several new birds. We saved the best for first, as a Lattice-tailed Trogon sat for scope views just a half-hour into the morning. The trickiest trogon to see in Costa Rica! From there, it was hard work to tease birds out of the forest, with fast-moving canopy flocks (Tawny-crested Tanager, Black-and-yellow Tanager) and understory birds (Song Wren, Stripe-breasted Wren, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher) playing hide-and-seek. I like to balance the difficult forest birding with somewhat easier targets, so in the afternoon we checked another nearby reserve and connected almost immediately with the unique little Snowcap, a tiny bronzy-purple hummingbird with a dazzlingly white crown. There was another Great Potoo roosting just beside the parking lot, but we pulled ourselves away with time to check for one more bird on the way back to the lodge…and success, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, bird #6000 for Amy!

Just like that, it was time to head back toward San Jose and wrap up our tour. We had a few last pieces of unfinished business to take care of, especially Great Green Macaw, which performed quite well (along with several Scarlet Macaws) near La Selva. We then headed up into the mountains, where our lunch restaurant was the perfect place to finish our two weeks of birding. Prong-billed Barbets were at the feeders, Spangle-cheeked Tanager foraged in the nearby trees, and Violet Sabrewings zipped around at arm’s length. And finally, we arrived back at the Hotel Bougainvillea, where Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Mottled Owl were some of our very last birds.

With 451 species recorded by the group in just two weeks, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is such a popular destination! From quetzals and macaws to ground-cuckoos and antbirds, it was a great tour. Thank you all!

Updated: February 2023