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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.