Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 4 – Savegre Valley

The Savegre area was the place that had the highest elevation of any on our trip, and because of that, it had very different birds.  This was immediately apparent upon our arrival, as even the birds in the garden of the Savegre Hotel (where we stayed) were very different from what we’d been seeing the rest of our trip.  Talamanca, fiery throated and volcano hummingbirds, as well as white-throated mountain-gem (also a hummingbird) were common and relatively tame.  Yellow-bellied siskins, flame-colored tanagers, and slaty flowerpiercers were also abundant.  Long-tailed silky flycatchers, an absurdly elegant bird that looks like it might be finely sculpted from wax, were rarely out of earshot our entire stay.

white-throated mountain-gem

Our first night we went on the night tour offered by the lodge, because it was advertised as providing a good chance at finding several different species of owls.  Apparently, however, there was some miscommunication between the guide and the lodge, because we spent nearly the entire time trying to call in one species, the bare-shanked screech-owl.  After a truly disturbing amount of playback from our guide, we did eventually manage to spotlight the owl, which was a special experience.  Despite that, though, I regret not insisting sooner that enough playback was enough, and it was ok if we just heard the owl.  I suppose I can hope that particular night tour isn’t very popular. 

The unfortunate bare-shanked screech-owl.

One of the most unique habitats we visited on our entire trip was the high elevation páramo that covers the very tops of the mountains in that region.  The páramo is a stunningly gorgeous grassland that only grows above 11,000 feet or so.  When we went many of the forbs and shrubs were blooming, coloring the mountain peaks bright shades of yellow and white as they faded into the distance.  Tiny crystal-clear streams filtered through the vegetation, in one of which my brother found a bright green salamander.  Unsurprisingly, the birds of the páramo are also unique — many of them are restricted to that habitat.  We spent four hours at one páramo site (Cerro Buenavista communication towers in Los Quetzales National Park) and only saw 17 species.  However, almost half of those were lifers.  Volcano juncos were everywhere, hopping about on the ground and in the short vegetation.  Large-footed finches were also easy to find, usually sitting still in the bases of bushes.  Timberline wrens usually stuck to the dense tangles of bamboo, although my brother did manage to photograph one in a small shrub amidst tangles of reindeer lichen.  Yellow-winged vireo, black-capped flycatcher, mountain elaenia, black-billed nightingale-thrush, and sooty thrush were also all abundant. 

volcano junco

On our final day, we took a long hike around our lodge.  The trail led through a forest of old and gigantic oaks, their trunks absurdly tall and straight, and their distant branches covered in lichens and epiphytes.  The birding was slow, but pleasant, and we slowly racked up an interesting list of species.  At one point, a family of spotted wood-quail quickly ran across the path in front of us.  At another, a flock of sulphur-winged parakeets descended noisily from the sky.  Perhaps the most exciting bird of the hike was a wrenthrush Theo and I encountered deep up the valley of a small mountain stream.  Wet vegetation pressed all around us as we huddled on a little beach, our binoculars trained on the brilliant red crest of the small bird agitatedly singing on the bank opposite us.  We also saw flame-throated warblers, silver-throated tanagers, yellow-winged vireos, a buffy tuftedcheek, a spot-crowned woodcreeper and my 1000th life bird, an ochraceous pewee.  The pewee ended up being my last life bird of the trip, as when the hike was over we sadly said goodbye to the beautiful Savegre Valley and began the long and grueling drive back to San José for our flight home. 

silver-throated tanager

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 3 – Rancho Naturalista

The next destination on our trip was Rancho Naturalista, located in the foothills of the Cartago province.  Unlike the other lodges we’d been staying at in Monteverde and Arenal, Rancho Naturalista specifically advertises itself as a birding lodge.  They had two very skilled birding guides, a Costa Rican women named Mercedes and a British man named Harry.  Both had extensive experience birding the region of Costa Rica and had also traveled elsewhere in the tropics.  Every meal at Rancho Naturalista was cooked for us, and honestly it was some of the best food we had our entire trip.  Aside from us, the only other guests at the lodge were a couple of photographers.

snowcap

Rancho Naturalista is a great place to see many different bird species, but the one we were most excited about ahead of time was the snowcap, because Rancho Naturalista was the spot on our itinerary where we were most likely to see one.  Snowcaps are a small and extremely charismatic species of hummingbird endemic to the mountains of southern Central America.  Males have an iridescent wine purple body with a bright white cap.  Females are glittering green on the back and white below. 

white-necked jacobin

We arrived at Rancho Naturalista in the early evening.  After dropping off our bags in our rooms we walked down a short path to the lodge’s communal area, where a deck overlooked a set of fruit and hummingbird feeders, and more distantly, the mountains.  As the sun set, we watched birds on the feeders and surrounding trees.  The most numerous hummingbirds were large species, particularly white-necked jacobins and green-breasted mangos, but other species were also present, including green hermit, crowned woodnymph, and rufous-tailed hummingbird.  Cocoa and streak-headed woodcreepers worked the trees behind the feeders, and a buff-throated foliage gleaner poked cautiously around the edge of the small clearing the lodge was built in. 

snowcap

The next day we were up bright and early, guided by Harry.  We walked down the dirt road from the lodge, stopping constantly to look and listen to a somewhat bewildering array of birds.  Slaty-capped, yellow-olive and tawny-chested flycatchers were all present near the lodge, the first two of which were lifers.  Harry led us to a house off the main road where there was a large clump of the purple Verbena the hummingbirds love.  It was only a few minutes before the first snowcap flew in, chattering excitedly.  Occasionally he would take a break from his feeding and perch on a small twig, allowing us to get close for photos.  Other hummingbirds were also using the Verbena patch, including green thorntails, brown violetears, and rufous-tailed hummingbirds.  We spent the rest of the morning walking the trails and roads around Rancho Naturalista, exploring forests, pastures and gardens.  We saw a total of eighty species, some of the most exciting of which to me (that weren’t already mentioned) were tropical gnatcatcher, white-vented euphonia, speckled tanager, stripe-throated hermit, checker-throated stipplethroat, and dusky antbird.

sunbittern

Following Harry’s advice, before we left Rancho Naturalista the next day, we stopped at a bridge crossing a small, swiftly flowing stream in the adjacent town.  Sure enough, on a branch across the stream about thirty feet away was a small nest, with a sunbittern sitting on top.  At some point the sunbittern got up to go hunt, revealing two downy white chicks.  With that last lifer we headed off to our final destination of the trip, Savegre Hotel in the Savegre Valley.

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 2 – Arenal

My first impression of the Arenal Volcano was when we were sitting in our lodge’s restaurant the evening we arrived.  It was raining and very cloudy, and most of the world seemed to be cloaked in white mist.  Below our window a couple great curassows ate watermelon slices that had been left out for them.  Suddenly, the fog cleared, and a tall, conical mountain appeared in an area I had assumed was just empty sky.  Lightning flickered near its top, periodically illuminating it through the fog. I had a vague memory in the back of my mind that there was a volcano in the Arenal area, but I’d never seen pictures. I certainly hadn’t expected such a perfectly conical one. It was beautiful, and a little intimidating. For the entirety of our stay in Arenal it was always present, either visible looming over us or blocked from sight by the rain and clouds.

Arenal Volcano
rufous-tailed hummingbird

After arriving from Monteverde, we spent the next three days in Arenal, exploring the fabulous grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge.  The lodge had an extensive trail system that led through diverse habitats, including dark forests, open pastures, and several small rivers.  Each habitat had its own set of associated birds, and the result was that it was relatively easy to see a lot of species in a small area, or without much effort.  We averaged around 70 species a morning without a guide, and someone more familiar with tropical birds would undoubtedly have detected many more.  The lodge had planted many clusters of a purple flowering Verbena shrub that the hummingbirds loved.  On our first morning, we spent over an hour just standing and photographing the hummingbirds at one such clump.  There were violet-headed hummingbirds, blue-vented hummingbirds, green thorntails, and the ubiquitous rufous-tailed hummingbirds.  Occasionally a black-crested coquette would swoop in and hover at eye level before zipping off to a flower to feed.  The males of this little hummingbird species are particularly spectacular, with shiny dark green throats and crests, light orange bills, and spotted green and white undersides. 

black-crested coquette

Another interesting experience at Arenal was seeing a mixed species foraging flock.  We were walking along a woodland trail with very few birds, other than the distant calls of a white-collared manakin lek.  Suddenly, the forest seemed to come alive.  Carmiol’s tanagers dripped from every tree and shrub.  A spotted antbird hopped out on the path.  Various woodpeckers, woodcreepers, tanagers, flycatchers and euphonias moved all around us.  Even one of the white-collared manakins briefly flew in, bouncing around near the ground like a ping-pong ball and making a sound like two marbles clicking together.  Mixed species flocks are of course a phenomenon in temperate regions too, but rarely have I seen one so impressively large and species rich as that one. 

yellow-faced grassquit

On some of our walks from the lodge we went further afield, following trails through the woods that emerged into an area of wide open pasture. Eucalyptus groves dotted the lush green fields, and the Volcano loomed over it all. Short-tailed hawks, white hawks, barred hawks, gray hawks, and swallow-tailed kites circled lazily in the sky, while swarms of white-collared swifts zoomed by. Yellow-faced grassquits foraged in the field and sang from the fences. As the road passed by a cluster of farm buildings, the bird activity picked up, partly due to a gigantic nesting community of Montezuma oropendolas, which are extremely noisy birds. A small flock of orange-chinned parakeets raided a fruit tree nearby. As we walked by a small stream I saw a tiger-heron perched majestically on a pipe hanging over the water. Wanting to get a better look at the bird’s front to identify it, I slowly edged along the bank of the river. I hadn’t realized I was right under the oropendola colony until one pooped on me! Luckily there wasn’t much to its poop, but it still freaked me out. The heron was a fasciated, a species I’d never seen before.

fasciated tiger-heron

We spent two evenings at Arenal out with guides looking for owls.  The first evening was a lava tour, where we visited the site of the lava flow from the last major eruption of the Arenal Volcano, which occurred in 1968. Aside from learning many interesting things about the volcano, it was nice to be out after dark because we saw different wildlife than we would have in the same spot during the day. As the sun set, we saw several common pauraques sitting in the road. At two small ponds, we stopped and searched for frogs, and found several species, perhaps the most beautiful of which was a stunningly colored red-eyed tree frog. On our drive back to the lodge we saw both an olingo and a black-and-white owl on the power lines.

red-eyed tree frog

The next evening we went out again, this time with a different guide. Our goal was to find as many species of owls as possible. Unfortunately, despite quite a lot of driving around on back roads and some playback, we were only able to find two species, both of which we only heard — black-and-white owl and a family of mottled owls.

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 1 – Monteverde

Earlier this summer, my family went on a birding vacation to Costa Rica.  Previously (in 2016) we’d spent two weeks at Tortuguero National Park and the Osa Peninsula in the Costa Rican lowlands, so this time we planned our route to focus on highland ecosystems and bird species.  We flew into and out of San José and stayed one night just outside the city on either end of our trip.  We split the remainder of our time between four general areas — Monteverde, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and the Savegre Valley.  This post focuses on just our time at Monteverde, our first destination, but look for three more in the coming days with details about the rest of our trip.

The sky dumped rain as we drove into the small town of Monteverde on our second day in Costa Rica.  Throughout our trip it rained on and off for most afternoons, making the early mornings the superior birding time.  Despite the rain, we’d managed to see some common birds on our long drive from San José, including a crested caracara, many great kiskadees and tropical kingbirds, and our lifer brown jays.  Once we got to Monteverde we immediately went to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, as we were desperate to take a walk after sitting in the car for hours.  The forest was tall, green, wet, and very dark, and the birds were not very active.  In fact, we only saw three species on our walk, yellowish flycatcher, white-throated thrush, and Costa Rican warbler.  However, even in the pouring rain hummingbirds swarmed around the feeders by the entrance to the reserve, and we soon saw several lifers including green hermit, purple-throated mountain-gem, stripe-tailed hummingbird, and the Costa Rican endemic coppery-headed emerald. 

Yellowish flycatchers are… yellowish. This photo was taken the next day at Curi-cancha, not in the rain.

The next morning, we explored Curi-cancha Refugio de Vida Silvestre — another local cloud forest — with a guide named Johnny.  The refuge had many different habitats, including both wooded and open sections.  Birds were everywhere, and we soon saw over 50 species, a stark contrast from the previous afternoon in the rain.  Johnny quickly pointed out a three-wattled bellbird song, which was a very loud ringing call followed by a loud piercing squeak.  We listened to the bellbirds for the rest of the morning and were also able to see and photograph a few.  Other highlights (and lifers) from Curi-cancha included white-naped brushfinch, white-eared ground-sparrow, golden-browed chlorophonia, black-headed nightingale-thrush, long-tailed manakin, and smoky-brown woodpecker. 

three-wattled bellbird

We also spent the next morning with Johnny, birding around the town of Monteverde and then returning to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  At the reserve we heard and eventually located several resplendent quetzals, perhaps one of Costa Rica’s most famous birds.  Much like bald eagles here, quetzals seem to be revered by birders and nonbirders alike.  They are indeed stunning birds, with intricately feathered glittering green backs and bright red undersides.  My photos do not do them justice, as for most of the time we were watching them they were high up in the lush canopy. 

resplendent quetzal

Johnny then showed us several other birds, including a scale-crested pygmy-tyrant, before saying goodbye.  After he left, we continued to bird the reserve by ourselves, finding prong-billed barbet, black-breasted wood-quail, spotted barbtail, eye-ringed flatbill, ochraceous wren, and a very cooperative collared redstart among many other species. 

collared redstart

The next day we went to Monteverde Sky Adventures Park, a place with many long and high bridges up in the canopy that spanned small valleys.  We watched butterflies glide from flower to flower and monkeys scramble between trees at eye level, barely noticing that we were over one-hundred feet in the air. Swallow-tailed kites circled lazily above nearby ridges. It was a fun experience to see some of the birds from previous days at eye level, and we did mange to find a few new species such as spangle-cheeked tanager and black-faced solitaire.

Here’s some howler monkeys on one of the bridges.