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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in Spring

2019 Narrative

In Brief: The top three bird highlights on this year’s spring Costa Rica tour included a truly remarkable close encounter with a Great Tinamou at La Selva, a stunning and cooperative Baird’s Trogon on the Osa Peninsula, and a blindingly white Snowy Cotinga in a roadside tree also at La Selva. Birds with long tails (or upper tail coverts) scored particularly high this year, as a Resplendent Quetzal above our lodge in the Talamanca Mountains, Long-tailed Manakin at Santa Elena, Scarlet Macaws at Bosque del Rio Tigre, and Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers (including one on a nest right by our rooms) were next in line among the tour favorites. We tallied an amazing total of 41 species of hummingbirds; Green-fronted Lancebill performing in front of a waterfall, and a boldly singing Violet-headed Hummingbird at eye level were among the top sightings. Always a favorite, American Pygmy Kingfisher was very cooperative among the mangroves on the Tárcoles River, Lesson’s Motmot provided the perfect tropical welcome, and the widespread and common Scarlet-rumped Tanager never stopped eliciting wows whenever they paused to show their intense black and brilliant red plumage. We had a particularly good mammal list this year as well, with many interesting bats (such as the Honduran White Bats roosting under a knee-high; heliconia leaf); three Nine-banded Armadillos; a troop of adorable Central American Squirrel Monkeys right over our heads, often plopping down on the large branches to rest in the tropical heat; and a handsome Tayra that froze in the middle of the road. Among the many other exciting animals we saw were an Eyelash Pit Viper, two species of lovely poison dart frogs, and numerous fascinating insects, such as a Giant Harlequin Beetle and the large, red-spotted weevil Cactophagus sanguinolentus that was apparently being mimicked by a very similar looking assassin bug very nearby. A great group of participants and our wonderful driver Enrique rounded out the elements that conspired to make this ideal tour.

In Detail: Our first morning at Tapantí was sunny and gorgeous, the first stop being rather hectic with new species coming at us from every direction. When we arrived at the headquarters we were temporarily distracted by the diversity of moths on that had been attracted to the lights overnight, but we were soon drawn to the mixed flocks, one of which had a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler. A Black Guan right over the road was a nice sighting, while a pair of Prong-billed Barbets performed their fascinating in-and-out of phase duet on cue. With such a sunny morning, many butterflies were out and about, including many Rusty-tipped Pages and a stunning Scarce Morpho. We arrived at the San Gerardo de Dota road with time to bird our way down the valley, and one very productive stop had a pair of stunning Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers, our only Yellow-bellied Siskins of the tour, and our first of many lovely Flame-throated Warblers.

We snagged most of the Talamanca specialties over the course of a beautiful and birdy day in San Gerardo de Dota. Before breakfast we had satisfying views of a male Resplendent Quetzal, but right after breakfast we returned and in even better light another male with an even more impressive train performed very well for us. Flame-throated Warbler was another crowd pleaser today, Ruddy Treerunner and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper showed well in mixed flocks, and an Ochraceous Pewee calling from a hidden perch finally appeared after much persistence. In the late afternoon we walked along the river, seeing Torrent Tyrannulet and Louisiana Waterthrush, and then we continued back to the higher elevations where a Dusky Nightjar came in for good views, inexplicably hovering in front of Rich’s face while he was doing playback for owls.

An early morning from Trogon Lodge was worth the short walk for great views of an American Dipper pair presumably visiting a nest, but then it was time to go from the coldest region of Costa Rica to the one of the hottest. After getting great views of Volcano Juncos in a stunning landscape atop Cerro de la Muerte, a stop at Bosque del Tolomuco was wonderfully productive, especially for hummingbirds, as here we saw our only Scintillant Hummingbird, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, and White-tailed Emerald, as well as our first Violet Sabrewings. Our first “Cherrie’s” Scarlet-rumped Tanagers were here as well, and they would accompany us for the next few days. Late in the afternoon, stopping at the Rincon Bridge for just a few minutes was worth it for the many Scarlet Macaws we saw.

Our first morning at Bosque del Rio Tigre had many highlights, starting with the Black-faced Antthrushes before sunrise around the compost bin, and the pre-breakfast vigil at the big overlook had many parrots (nearly all of the possibilities) as well as a very cooperative Pale-billed Woodpecker. After breakfast on the trails we spied a Black-throated Trogon and sat to watch a busy fig tree on the ridge. While we waited (and failed to see a cotinga of any kind), the understory flowers were visited by a Band-tailed Barbthroat, but the most memorable encounter was by a troop of Central American Squirrel Monkeys that first seemed to be elusive and shy but later came in the tree right over us to forage and cool off by flopping down on the bigger limbs. An afternoon hike up Arroyo Pizote resulted in a sighting of White-tipped Sicklebill on its nest, one of the most reliable places for this species anywhere; then on the way back to the lodge a pair of White-throated Crakes obligingly came out on cue. Around the lodge it was amazing to see five species of roosting bats, including a colony of Pygmy Round-eared Bats that had burrowed a nesting cavity up into a termite nest. Abram spotted a Red-eyed Treefrog by the main building while we were having dinner, and afterward, a night walk resulted in great views of a Kinkajou as well as a pair of Black-and-white Owls and a Common Pauraque.

Our second full day here started with a morning visit to Sándalo Beach where our target Mangrove Hummingbird appeared right on cue, while Common Black-Hawks and a Three-toed Sloth were further sightings before we had breakfast. Gray-cowled Wood-Rails were all over the roads as we returned to the lodge, where morning birding on the trails revealed a pair of Gray-headed Kites (probably nesting nearby), a Rufous Piha foraging above the trail, and great views of a very confiding Northern Bentbill. In the afternoon we waded upstream, which was mostly quiet, but in the end, resulted in a most fabulous male Baird’s Trogon and a pair of bathing Bicolored Antbirds.

A final early morning in Dos Brazos was highlighted by an Olivaceous Piculet and a fortuitous sighting of our only Long-billed Starthroat. The stop at the Rincon Bridge had plenty of birds, and we ended up seeing but one Yellow-billed Cotinga in the distance as it flew across the river, perched, and then flew off up into the hillsides away from us. The drive north was punctuated by a stop for ice cream and a Two-toed Sloth as well as a pair of Double-striped Thick-knees by the highway.

Our morning boat ride amongst the Rio Tárcoles mangroves was delightful, with an American Pygmy-Kingfisher being the top bird, though we briefly heard a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail that had been present the week before. Boat-billed Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, many Common Black-Hawks, and several species of shorebirds were other sightings before we had to depart for the drier lowlands of the Northwest. An Elegant Tern and Sanderlings at the Caldera mudflat were good finds at a quick highway stop. Spot-breasted and Streak-backed Orioles were cooperative as we worked our way to Ensenada Lodge, and we arrived there right at high tide to discover large numbers of shorebirds hiding under the shoreline mangroves. Enrique did us a huge favor by spotting a roosting Pacific Screech-Owl before we had lunch. The Salinas were good for numbers of Black-necked Stilts and a few other shorebirds, but the more memorable sighting was a family group of Stripe-headed Sparrows just as we were leaving the area.

It was a relief to be in the cooler elevations of Monteverde, even if we had to work a bit harder for our birds. The cloud forest quickly gave up its Orange-bellied Trogons, and we finally laid eyes on a Silver-fronted Tapaculo at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The trail was mostly quiet, but one big mixed flock had Buffy Tuftedcheek, which we saw well with effort, and Slate-colored Redstarts were cooperative in several places. The rarest bird was a heard-only Rough-legged Tyrannulet calling from the high canopy. A Masked Tityra at the hotel during the siesta was a memorable sighting, and an afternoon to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was productive with a good sighting of Three-wattled Bellbird, a Green-fronted Lancebill feeding or bathing at length in front of the waterfall, and the many hummingbirds at the gallery feeders, including stunning Violet Sabrewing and our only Magenta-throated Woodstars.

The morning’s favorite bird at the Santuário Ecológio was the Long-tailed Manakin, including females, young males, and a stunning adult male with a complete tail. As we navigated around Lake Arenal, the weather was just right for raptor migration, and we saw a few Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, but more impressive was a kettle of hundreds of Turkey Vultures headed north. Birding above the Arenal dam was great fun, with a rare Keel-billed Motmot showing well, an understated female Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Long-tailed Tyrant, and many others. At the Arenal Observatory’s deck we were lucky to spot a Black Hawk-Eagle flying over with a snake in its talons, presumably off to a distant nest. A night walk produced a gorgeous Red-eyed Treefrog as well as several interesting moths and beetles, especially a Giant Harlequin Longhorn.

It was nice to have a full morning at Arenal Observatory to explore the gardens and forest edge before breakfast, where a Montezuma Oropendola nesting colony and Violet-headed Hummingbird were highlights. After breakfast, the trail behind our rooms was good for Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Song Wren (heard only, but that’s the best part of the bird), and a stakeout Great Potoo roosting right over the trail. The new canopy tower gave us our first male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis as well as a huge, distant raptor that photos showed to be a Great Black Hawk in heavy molt. As we departed the lodge, we birded on the road and were treated to a huge mixed flock mostly at eye level in the forest below the road, highlights being Crimson-collared Tanager, Purple-crowned Fairy, and Russet Antshrike, among many others. The lunchtime stop was good for an odd inland Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at the pond behind the restaurant, and the same tree had a confiding Rufous-winged Woodpecker and Green Basilisk. After arriving at Sueño Azul we had time to hike to the distant marshes where Muscovy Duck and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck were nice surprises, but even more surprising was a pair of Slate-colored Grosbeaks that came completely out of the forest canopy to a pair of lone trees in the pasture.

A mostly overcast day and lower than usual temperatures allowed us to spend a full day at La Selva Biological Station. A Snowy Cotinga along the entrance road and Plain-colored Tanager around the main compound were a good start to the morning. We progressed to a rare sighting of Hook-billed Kite soaring overhead, Collared Aracaris feeding on fruits, and Purple-throated Fruitcrows responding to our whistled imitations. After lunch, we scored on both Celeus woodpeckers: Cinnamon Woodpecker and Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and were happily distracted by a roost of Honduran White Bats, thanks to our guide Yahaira. As we were returning to depart, we thought we were lucky to see a pair of Great Tinamous so close to the trail in the understory but not much farther down the trail we were gobsmacked to have one foraging along the side of the paved pathway and walk right past the group within just a few feet.

A Northern Tamandua along the Sendero Las Palmas trail at Braulio Carrillo National Park was eclipsed by a male White-ruffed Manakin performing its little-known and not-yet-published backflip display on a boulder in the middle of the trail. We had good flock activity all along the trail, with sightings of all the usual tanagers as well as the difficult Blue-and-gold Tanager. We visited the nearby hummingbird garden three times, seeing but one female Snowcap, but more cooperative was a stunning male Violet-headed Hummingbird that sang from a low porterweed bush all morning. A male Green Thorntail was also a good sighting, but most amazing was a flock of twenty-plus Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, mostly males, in a single fruiting tree well up the slope. At Sueño Azul, we cleaned up on the wrens with Bay, Black-throated, and a pair of the very cooperative Canebrake, all along the entrance road. Black-faced Grosbeaks were super cooperative, and an active nest of Scarlet-rumped Tanager in the driveway shrubbery reminded us how beautiful this bird is, despite being so common.

One last early morning at Sueño Azul added Checker-throated Antwren and Black-crowned Antshrike to our list, but Sunbittern wasn’t to be found, for the second year in a row. On our drive towards lunch, we paused by the roadside for a White-tailed Kite kiting over a pineapple field. Late morning at La Virgen de Socorro was pretty amazing, with White Hawk, Swallow-tailed Kite, Golden-winged Warbler, and American Dipper all giving great performances. Lucky timing was spotting the Tayra that crossed the road, stopped in the middle, and watched us for several seconds before disappearing in the undergrowth. After enjoying the busy feeders at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where we saw our only male Black-bellied Hummingbirds, we finished the tour’s birding just down the road from the Bougainvillea Hotel. The endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and a very cooperative Lineated Woodpecker provided for the perfect grand finale.

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