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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in Spring

2022 Narrative

Tour highlights were flung at us at dizzying speed during our 13 days of birding in Costa Rica. How can such a small country have so many species?  Upon deeper reflection we did have some nice down time, good meals and conversation, scenic rides, and even a single morning of unbirdable mist and wind, but the dominating impression is that we had hundreds of colorful species flung at us with every stop. We ended the tour with a list of about 460 species; however, in the end participants were allowed to mention only three of their top birds. Garnering most votes were the gorgeous Ocellated Antbirds, with up to ten at a single army ant swarm, a rarely witnessed concentration (the leader has seen only five in his entire life). The only other bird to be voted by more than one person was the incomparable Keel-billed Toucan, which in some years is more common; this year we finally had fabulous views of three in perfect morning light on our last morning. The other mentioned favorites spanned the entire duration and geography of the tour, and no one got around to even mentioning the Resplendent Quetzals. Even before the tour officially began, the handsome and undeniably tropical Lesson’s Motmots in the hotel gardens were a sign of things to come. The Ornate Hawk-Eagle on our first morning flew over so close we could see the rufous streaking on the sides of the breast, and the checkered wingspan was duly impressive. The pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias nibbling on tree fruits at length up in the Talamanca highlands were impossibly adorable. On our second morning on the Osa Peninsula, we stepped off the bus to find an Olivaceous Piculet, the country’s smallest woodpecker by a long shot. Also, the smallest in its family, the American Pygmy Kingfisher fishing in the mangroves right by our boat was fun to spend time with. Barred Antshrike is not a rare or local species, but we detected it only once on our one morning of birding in the tropical deciduous forest of the northwest, and that one time it sat up in front of the group and created an indelible impression. Red-legged Honeycreeper when seen well will always be mentioned as a favorite, and we saw it at least three times in its stunning glory; but the light in the dark, overcast early morning at Arenal Observatory Lodge seemed to over-accentuate its purpleness and turquoise crown.

Then there were the second–favorites that still left indelible impressions: The Collared Redstart that foraged so closely for so long, it might have been accused of being a narcissist; the Yellow-billed Cotingas flying over the Rincon bridge; the White-tipped Sicklebills, one on a nest, the other on its night roost by 3 p.m.; Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched in the open right by where we saw Pacific Screech-Owl; Streaked Flycatcher which we saw so well on a couple mornings; a huge Pale-billed Woodpecker, quietly foraging in the understory a few yards away; the long-awaited Spangle-cheeked Tanager that appeared in a cloud forest mixed flock and then quickly disappeared.; the Bicolored Antbirds at that amazing army ant swarm; and finally the Black-faced Solitaires singing their haunting song in all directions and then suddenly there were two perched in the open forest mid-story.

It was a beautiful morning when we arrived at Tapantí National Park, and we first stopped by a row of blooming Erythrina trees with lots of activity, including hummingbirds, our first tanagers, and a handsome Montezuma Oropendola. But closer to the park entrance we started seeing really juicy stuff, like a Purple-crowned Fairy foraging at length right over us and a Sooty-faced Finch on the roadside. It was a good morning for raptors too, as a pair of Barred Hawks were displaying rather early in the morning, and an Ornate Hawk-Eagle flew over. Broad-winged Hawks were plentiful as well, some extremely confiding as they were hunting from low perches right along the road. One of our last finds here was a pair of Prong-billed Barbets that gave their synchronous duet as we watched. We ended the day at our high elevation hotel in the Cerro de La Muerte area with a stunning Flame-colored Tanager at the feeders.

Our full day at the highest elevations accessible by road in Costa Rica was full of local specialties that performed well. While we were seeing our first Resplendent Quetzal (an immature male), a Collared Redstart really stole the show while foraging for several minutes at our feet. A pair of Black-cheeked Warblers at the same spot were nearly as confiding. Throughout the day’s birding we saw several Flame-throated Warblers, eventually had great views of hyper Slaty Flowerpiercers, and managed to coax a Wrenthrush into sight. We saw three more Resplendent Queztals as well, one a male with a complete upper-tail-covert train flying down the road at us and then perching not far from the road. We ended the day not seeing any nightjars or owls at our stakeout spot, only to have a Dusky Nightjar right below our lodge and flying in to a visible perch right by the restaurant.

After enjoying last views of Large-footed Finch and Flame-colored Tanager at the Dantica feeders, we dropped in elevation to visit Bosque de Tolomuco’s garden and feeders. A Magenta-throated Woodstar was the favorite hummingbird here, but White-tailed Emerald and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird were two excellent finds that we never saw again. Speckled Tanagers were simply stunning on the feeders (you had to pick them out of the dozens of Silver-throated Tanagers), and a pair of Red-headed Barbets showed off their colors at one of the feeding trays. Farther down the road we stopped to have our sack lunch while enjoying drinks from a small roadside snack bar (soda), which also had a feeding tray but an even more exciting collection of birds just in the normal habitat, including just-arriving Piratic Flycatchers and a stunning Green Honeycreeper. The stop at the Rincón Bridge was way too birdy, and an hour went by in just a few moments – Scarlet Macaws, Scarlet-rumped Caciques, and a lesson in swallow identification were highlights, but no Yellow-billed Cotingas. As we arrived at Bosque del Tigre a pair of Riverside Wrens stirred up a mob, making us think there might be a snake nearby, but we failed to find the object of their scorn.

Our first morning at Bosque del Rio Tigre saw us up at the pasture overlook, followed by some quality time at the lodge, and the trail to the pond. Masked Tityra was a highlight at the first, while Red-legged Honeycreeper and Red-capped Manakin (nesting) were best seed right by our rooms. The Boat-billed Herons at the pond were very cooperative this year. In the afternoon, some of the group hiked up Quebrada Pizote to see White-tipped Sicklebill, and no one was disappointed. A female on a nest was amazing enough, but the second bird perched at length on a fern frond made for the best photos. On the way back, we whistled up a mob of birds with Black-and-white Warbler and White-browed (formerly Tropical) Gnatcatcher, and then had an amazing encounter with a wasp pulling a spider that it had just stung; the wasp ended up being a species of Tachypompilus, while the spider was the venomous Phoneutria depilata wandering spider. It was slow work, and a pair of Gray-capped Flycatchers seemed interested in trying to steal the spider as we were leaving.

We started our second morning in the open habitats on the road to Dos Brazos, and the activity was nonstop. An Olivaceous Piculet greeted us immediately upon arrival, and a noisy pair of Roadside Hawks showed well. A late morning hike upstream from the lodge had several specialties, including a pair of musical Black-bellied Wrens and a Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner that came in close from a long way away. Those who stayed back at the lodge were treated to a nice male Orange-collared Manakin in addition to the female still on her nest right by the dining area. In the afternoon we took a successful trip to Playa Sandalo for the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird, but perhaps even more memorable were the Yellow Warbler (Mangrove Warbler when split), a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and a pair of handsome White-necked Puffbirds.

We couldn’t leave Bosque Del Rio Tigre without some last-minute birding, so we drew in a pair of brave White-throated Crakes and were greeting by a very bold Slaty-tailed Trogon right by the bus. At the Rincón Bridge, patience paid off when one, then two, then tree Yellow-billed Cotingas flew over closely, a couple landing for brief scope views. Then just up the road we scored a pair of Black-striped Woodcreepers and a very nice Baird’s Trogon, both endemic to the Costa Rica-Panama Pacific coastal endemic area. The drive north was uneventful, though the cold coconuts, beach view, and terns were a nice addition. On the road by Cerro Lodge, we paused for Turquoise-browed Motmot, then called in a mixed flock that had a surprise Prothonotary Warbler. A Crane Hawk few in unannounced and landed in a tree by the road before Enrique told us about the Pacific Screech-Owl on a day-roost, which we promptly saw; it was surely the same bird he had found there on the previous WINGS tour last October.

We had a delightful boat ride down the Tárcoles River and into the mangroves, where a very close American Pygmy Kingfisher fished as if we weren’t there. Plumbeous Kites were starting to set up territories in the tall red mangroves, and a Mangrove Vireo joined one mixed flock. On the way to our lunch in the dry Pacific tropical deciduous forest, we pulled in a Barred Antshrike and a pair of musical Banded Wrens, and at another stop were treated to a soaring Hook-billed Kite. At lunch was yet another Pacific Screech-Owl on an even more open day roost. It wasn’t too hot, so we birded the salt lagoons to pad the bird list with shorebirds and were treated to a lovely Black-headed Trogon in the nearby trees.

Monteverde was very windy and misty, hampering the birding, but we managed to squeak out a few. Black-faced Solitaires until now had been elusive, and we passed by several singing out of sight before we stumbled on a pair sitting out in the open mid-story not far from the trail. Smoky-brown Woodpecker and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush were two of the other birds we saw in the gorgeous cloud forest before retreating to the hummingbird feeders, where Violet Sabrewing and Purple-throated Mountain-gem left a lasting impression. We finished birding the morning near our hotel, where a pair of Northern Emerald-Toucanets were a treat to see. In the afternoon we found less wind and drizzle down at the Santuario Ecológico, and though it was typically quiet in the latter part of the day, we came across a very uncommon Ruddy Woodcreeper and lucked into a Black Guan perched quietly in the canopy.

Wind and rain drove us away from the Monteverde area, so our first birding stop, after seeing Gray Hawk from the bus, was at the Arenal dam and up the road from there. A Rufous Motmot was a good find there and nice to compare with the rather similar Broad-billed Motmot only a few minutes later. Buff-rumped Warblers were very obliging on the road, and Enrique spotted a Laughing Falcon perched not far away. After lunch we walked the Bogarin trail, where the other subspecies of White-throated Crake (gray-faced) and Russet-naped Wood-Rail walked out in the open. Even more out in the open were the birds on the feeding tray, Red-legged Honeycreeper being especially gorgeous. We got lucky to see the Uniform Crake just down the trail, one of the birds that made this place famous. At the Arenal Observatory Lodge, rain really set it, but we still had some time to watch the feeders from shelter, and Great Curassow was a highlight there.

The feeder area at the lodge were great fun – stunning Emerald Tanagers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and especially a male Red-legged Honeycreeper in the low early morning light were memorable. The Indiana birding group tipped us off on some good birds. First, a Black-crested Coquette and Stripe-throated Hermit were at the porterweed flowers by their rooms, and then we managed to finally relocate their army ant swarm a hundred meters or so down the road from where they had it the day before. We were lucky they were next to the road, as Bicolored Antbirds, up to 10 Ocellated Antbirds, and a local pair of Spotted Antbirds were with them, warranting a good half-hour stop for us. In the same area we had a male Summer Tanager (must have been an old wasp nest nearby) and a very confiding Yellow-bellied Flycatcher perched low above the roadside vegetation. The ride to our next lodge usually has no birding highlights, but we stopped for a kettle of birds only to witness an amazing migration of hundreds of Turkey Vultures, a stream-and-kettle formation that may have had well over 2000 birds.

Our full day at La Selva Biological station was excellent. A cooperative Strawberry Poison Dart Frog preceded the walk down the trail that offered up Rufous Motmots, a kettle of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, and a Black Hawk-Eagle that began its song display flight very low overhead. On another trail a Snowy Cotinga spotted by our local guide, unfortunately, did not stay for more than one participant to see it. Farther down, we enjoyed watching a pair of Pied Puffbirds working on a nest cavity in a termite nest. Our local guide also spotted a White-whiskered Puffbird very close to the trail, which eventually led to the amazing discovery of a Great Tinamou bathing in the creek below the footbridge. Other fun critters along the trail were a Yellow-spotted Night-Lizard in a hole in the bank and the huge Blue-winged Helicopter that finished off a spider it grabbed from its web. As we departed La Selva, a short roadside stop yielded a very close Pale-billed Woodpecker in the forest understory. Back at our lodge, a nice walk around the vicinity produced our first Louisiana Waterthrush of the tour.

Our only Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, which fed from the flowers at Braulio Carrillo National Park didn’t stick around until everyone had gathered, but the Violet-headed Hummingbird just across the drive was actively building a nest. We then walked the trail, which finally produced a flock of Tawny-crested Tanagers, two different Broad-billed Motmots, and the predicted White-ruffed Manakin on its display site. We then had time in the afternoon to make some afternoon stops, one of which had a surprise pair of Great Green Macaws that flew over very closely. We then birded a road that crossed a couple rivers where Amazon Kingfisher was seen well, and a pair of Long-tailed Tyrants were tending a nesting cavity right by the road.

We had a bit of morning birding at our lodge Quinta de Sarapiqui, and finally, we had fulfilling views of Keel-billed Toucans in the perfect morning light, which had been strangely elusive until now. A short roadside stop gave us our only Hooded Yellowthroats, followed by a pair of soaring White Hawks. We then had a very full morning of birding at Virgen de Socorro, where the first surprise was a Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant that popped up on top of the vegetation just a few feet away.  We saw Slate-throated Redstarts really well, saw another White Hawk, Scarlet-thighed Dacnises were in the mixed flocks, and two Black-crested Coquettes dueled in flight until they vanished into the sky. The feeders at lunch were such a treat, with Prong-billed Barbets, a Yellow-winged Tanager (new to the all-time list), and a pair of Northern Emerald-Toucanets all at arm’s length. Birding wasn’t quite over though – making for one of our biggest daily, a visit to the higher elevations on the Poás road resulted in a repeat of Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher and solid views of its strange cousin, Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher.

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