09 February 2017

The Edges of Costa Rica

Although it's snowy from where I'm writing this, I just returned from two and a half weeks of birding in beautiful Costa Rica.  Tom Johnson, who has done this tour several times before, and I were lucky to lead these back-to-back tours.  In fact, I'm very excited to say that he and I will be leading these tours again in 2018!  To find out more about them (yes, a shameless plug), here's the website for the tour.


Although the birds were amazing, there was one major problem... dealing with the impressive variety.  And although I'm a bit behind in my blogging, I wanted to share at least a fraction of the photos from the tour.  After all, I'm headed to southern Mexico tomorrow and then I'll just be more behind!  Anyway, here are some photos (probably with minimal explanation as, well, I have stuff to get back to!).

The tour started near San José, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Just around the back gardens of the Hotel Bougainvillea we started to see a variety of different species.  Starting things off, we have the abundant RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROW:
The hotel is also a good spot for the large RUFOUS-NAPED WREN, a relative of our Cactus Wren and a species we wouldn't see elsewhere on tour:
INCA DOVES are common there as well.  Small and scaly-looking:
But soon it was towards the high country on our way south.  The highlands were teeming with SOOTY-CAPPED CHLOROSPINGUS, formerly known as a bush-tanager, a rather sharp bird with a somewhat angry expression:
I should add that the hummingbirds over the 2-3 weeks were truly spectacular; we ended the tour with an impressive 33 different species!  One of the most abundant species in the high elevations was the FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD:
We came across a fair share of attractive butterflies and moths too.  This is a TIGER HELICONIAN, a species of butterfly:
Perhaps the most common tanager in these parts was the ubiquitous BLUE-GRAY TANAGER.  If you head to the American tropics, learn this one:
Wow, the FIERY-BILLED ARAÇARI is quite a bird!  And check out that feather-like tongue:
These small toucans were fairly common at the Talari Mountain Lodge where we stayed a few nights.  Here's another view of this specialty of Costa Rica and Panama:
The honeycreepers were especially colorful.  Here's a RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER :
One of my favorite tanagers is this one right here... the SPECKLED TANAGER:
At night, it wasn't uncommon to see COMMON PAURAQUES out on the roads.  These nightjars perch on the warm road and then sally up to catch flying insects:
Before long it was time to head to Wilson Botanical Garden where we were lucky to spend a couple of nights.  The trails there were fantastic; loads of new birds and... well... monkeys!  I'm not sure I've ever been looked at with such contempt as by this capuchin:
One of the favorite birds of the trip (for some, anyway) was this most-impressive BROWN-BILLED SCYTHEBILL hauling around its ginormous bill:
They use that long, curved bill to probe into bromeliads and other hard-to-reach areas that are off-limits to species with shorter bills.

This BLACK HAWK-EAGLE was one of my favorite raptors of the trip.  It's such a striking bird that's easy to ID from afar:
Another easy-to-recognize raptor is the incredible smooth-flying SWALLOW-TAILED KITE:
These were quite common during our time at Wilson Botanical Garden; no complaints from any of us!

Here's a raptor that we spotted while we were eating breakfast one day, the snake-eating LAUGHING FALCON!  I grabbed my phone, attached it to my spotting scope, and managed to snap a photo or two:
One of our targets in the southern reaches of the country was MASKED YELLOWTHROAT.  However, the subspecies that's present there, the "Chiriqui" race, is quite rare and could easily be split out into a different species someday.  For starters, that population is quite separated from the mainland race that's found down in Colombia.  Anyway, our efforts required us to try a location or two but we eventually found these little secretive warblers:
We eventually headed down the mountains to the west and into the humid Pacific lowlands.  Once there in the town of Coto 47, it was time to look for a different suite of birds.  For example, see this bump on the powerline?
If you zoom in and get a closer look, you'll find it's a hummingbird on a nest!
Not only that, but it's a rare hummer as well... the VERAGUAN MANGO!  This species has been a recent arrival to the country from the south and this individual was our only one of the trip.

Believe it or not, I take photos of other things too... for example, my sandwich after it fell into a river:
It's a long story but suffice it to say, the fish looked like they enjoyed it.  Glad someone did.

I've already shared some toucan photos above... but we saw more!  Actually, we ended up seeing 6 different kinds during our tours there.  Here's a YELLOW-THROATED TOUCAN, one of the more common toucans, flying past us from the Rio Rincon bridge:
Birding the Rio Rincon bridge area was truly splendid.  We tallied more than 100 species during a few hours of birding there one morning.   The star of the show was the rare YELLOW-BILLED COTINGA.  Not only did we see one, we saw almost ten!  Here's a male as it flew over the river right in front of us:
Sadly, this species is endangered due to deforestation and loss of habitat.  In fact, some estimates suggest there could be as few as 250 of these left on earth.  We felt truly lucky to witness so many of them.

The birding around the bridge also included this NORTHERN BARRED-WOODCREEPER:
Although I had seen these on a previous trip to Costa Rica, I was still impressed by how big they were; it's a serious woodcreeper!

Shortly after, a freaking CRANE HAWK came in, landed above us, and flew out over our heads!  Wow, what a way to get a lifer!
We didn't have any close calls with venomous snakes.  Actually, they're quite hard to find even when you want to!  A few folks were interested in herps though and so they took a guided night hike to look for critters.  One of their finds was this tiny Fer-de-lance.  Gorgeous creature, though I'm glad I was shooting with a zoom lens:
Before long, the Part 1 tour came to a close and it was time to drive back to San José.  On our way north, we stopped for this GRAY HAWK that was posing nicely along the highway:
We also paused at the Rio Tarcoles to watch some of the impressive AMERICAN CROCODILES below us.  These things are NO JOKE!  Thankfully we were on a bridge and they weren't:
The second tour started the following day and this time we headed north.  One of our first stops was a fruiting tree that was attracting all sorts of avian attention (and thus, our attention).  Included were numerous GOLDEN-BROWED CHLOROPHONIAS, a vividly-green frugivore (fruit-eater) that's found only in Costa Rica and Panama:
Next, we stopped to look for birds at the impressive Poas Volcano (and, ok, maybe to take a photo or two as well).  At an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet, it was quite a view:
Later on, we visited the famous La Paz Waterfall Gardens to see what was cooking at the hummingbird feeders and nearby trails.  We added quite a few new species to our triplist including BLACK-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, GREEN HERMIT, VIOLET SABREWING, and this GREEN THORNTAIL coming in for a landing:
I have to say, the EMERALD TOUCANETS on this trip were amazing.  These are a variety of small toucan that is found at middle and upper elevations from Mexico south to Bolivia:
So, did you remember the name of the most common tanager?  Again, this is a BLUE-GRAY TANAGER:
The RED-HEADED BARBET was a favorite for some... and for good reason; look at the deepness of that red!
Costa Rica has only a few truly endemic species (it shares most of its specialties with Panama).  However, our tours saw a couple of these specialties including BLACK-CHEEKED ANT-TANAGER and this COPPERY-HEADED EMERALD:
The feeders at Bosque de Paz were almost always busy with these large and distinctive cracids, the BLACK GUAN.  Here's one trying to look innocent after ripping the fruit right off the feeder:
A close contender for my favorite tanager is the SPANGLE-CHEEKED TANAGER, a gorgeous species of the tropics:
Ok, it's kind of mean to follow that up with a chlorospingus but... oh well.  This is the very-abundant COMMON CHLOROSPINGUS; a highland species found from Mexico south to Argentina:
The YELLOWISH FLYCATCHERS were common at Bosque de Paz as well.  Sometimes quite tame, I was able to get this one in the scope and take a few photos with my phone:
The hummingbirds there were incredible too.  You could get face-to-face with all sorts including this GREEN-CROWNED BRILLIANT, a relatively large and sturdy species common in that part of the world:
Birding the upper elevations near Bosque de Paz provided wonderful birds AND nice scenery.  Here's our group enjoying a break in the clouds:
We continued north to the Caño Negro region in the far north part of the country.  At one point, we stopped at a field that had several of the uncommon DOUBLE-STRIPED THICK-KNEES standing around!  Although there is some heat shimmer, they're pretty unmistakable shorebirds:
We were lucky to do some nightbirding near Caño Negro as well.  We struck gold with BLACK-AND-WHITE OWL, STRIPED OWL, and even two of the ginormous GREAT POTOOS!
This is another nightjar but one that does most of its sitting around on big stumps and broken-off branches.  These guys really are big though; with a wingspan of more than 2 feet, this is the largest nightjar in the world!

Switching gears to marshbirds, here's a RUSSET-NAPED WOOD-RAIL:
If you haven't heard of this species before, there's probably a reason for that (Gray-necked Wood-Rail was split into two species in 2016; Russet-naped to the north and Gray-cowled to the south).

We took several boat trips in the far northern reaches of the country.  What a relaxing way to enjoy the birds and scenery!
From the water, it was possible to see a whole new suite of species that one doesn't usually see from land.  For example, we got close to trees full of GREEN IGUANAS!  Here's a big boy in his breeding colors:
We had numerous bird highlights from the boat trips as well.  For example, here's a GRAY-HEADED KITE that perched wonderfully for us:
Overall, it was a beautiful time to be out on a boat; the evening air was full of herons, jacanas, kingfishers, monkeys, and even a BLACK-COLLARED HAWK.  Here was our view:
We left the Caño Negro region and headed to our last lodge.  En route, we visited some birding spots that were truly hopping.  It was there that we finally caught up with a CRIMSON-COLLARED TANAGER:
The GOLDEN-HOODED TANAGERS were a real crowd-pleaser as well:
The ORANGE-CHINNED PARAKEETS came down en masse and we all enjoyed some crippling views of this small psittacid:
The highlight for many at that stop was this WHITE-THROATED CRAKE that decided to walk out from the shadows!
Crakes are normally very secretive and so we all enjoyed getting to see one out in full sun.

We eventually made it to Arenal Observatory Lodge, a wonderful spot at the base of the mostly-quiet Arenal Volcano:
Although shrouded in clouds most of the time, we caught a glimpse of it one day actually peeking out:
The birding at Arenal can be superb (when it's not pouring).  Thankfully for us, the weather cooperated wonderfully and we saw very little rain.  

One critter that WASN'T thankful that day was this mantis that had to go face-to-face with this female HEPATIC TANGER:
And, well, you can imagine how this battle ended; these tanagers are made to battle big insects like that.  Here the bird has the bug by the head (look away, entomologists):
Later during our visit, we couldn't believe our luck when we spied this NORTHERN TAMANDUA crawling down a tree and then up a hillside:
Yes, this is a type of anteater (and my first ever)!

The birds on the grounds at Arenal never seemed to stop.  We saw a rare YELLOW-EARED TOUCANET, RUFOUS-WINGED TANAGER, GREAT POTOO, 7 species of hummingbirds, trogons, motmots, antbirds, and woodcreepers.  In fact, we saw more than 120 species in just a few days there!  Included in the impressive array were the BANANAQUITS, a common species in the tropics:
We added some fantastic (and rare) hummingbirds to our trip in the Arenal area.  Our group saw multiple BLACK-CRESTED COQUETTES which is an uncommon specialty of the area.  Less rare but still fun to look at, the VIOLET-HEADED HUMMINGBIRDS were pugnacious as ever:
Another of the many highlights for me was when our amazing driver and birder, Vernon, spotted this FASCIATED TIGER-HERON:
Unlike other tiger-herons, this species prefers fast-flowing rivers and streams.  The entrance road to Arenal is a great spot for it and I wonder how many birders get their lifer right there.

After it was all said and done, our two back-to-back tours netted a total of about 450 species including an impressive array of rare and uncommon species.  A major thanks goes out to Tom and Vernon for their expertise with the area.  We certainly had fun and look forward to doing it again next year.

I'll leave you with our fond farewell as we left the rainforests behind and headed back to winter: