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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in July

2021 Narrative

Summer is a fascinating time in Costa Rica, with a lovely combination of fewer tourists and more cute baby birds! Our tour started in the highlands with Resplendent Quetzal and Fiery-throated Hummingbird, continued down to Rancho Naturalista for some mega mixed-flocks plus highlight Sunbittern and Snowcap, on to Tortuguero where we couldn’t escape the Great Green Macaws, and to the far north of the country for local Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, hulking Jabiru, and shy Tody Motmot. Phew! It was a whirlwind two weeks, packed full of excellent birding, delicious food, and fun camaraderie.

 Our July Costa Rica tour kicked off in fine fashion on the outskirts of Cartago, where a random grassy field produced multiple recently split Grass Wrens (doing the splits on grass, no less) before we headed up higher into the Talamanca highlands. Our limited time in the Savegre Valley area was primarily to look for one of Costa Rica’s most famous residents, Resplendent Quetzal, which was seen extremely well on multiple occasions. In addition to the quetzals, we ended up with a long list of other highlights: a family group of Black-and-yellow Phainoptila (or Silky-flycatcher) was very showy on the Providencia Road, with a supporting cast of Ruddy Treerunner, Timberline Wren, Large-footed Finch, Collared Whitestart, and others. Cerro de la Muerte produced its devil-eyed Volcano Juncos on cue. The gardens of our lodge and surrounding roadsides were delightfully birdy: molting Long-tailed Silkies lit up every fruiting tree, Flame-throated Warblers and Yellow-winged Vireos paraded around in mixed flocks, and we studied the differences between Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds. An evening foray to Paraiso Quetzal was marvelous, with dozens and dozens of Fiery-throated and Talamanca Hummingbirds within touching distance…and Barred Parakeets flying over in the fog, slightly less satisfying.

We then started our long loop across the Caribbean side of the country, with our first stop being the famous Rancho Naturalista. It was here that we first started to notice a fair bit of rain…but more on that later. Despite the excellent opportunity to sit under the protection of the roof and watch the hummingbird feeders (with Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, and Garden Emerald on the purple Verbena flowers nearby), we managed to make it out on the trails a couple of times, looking in particular for the very uncooperative Tawny-chested Flycatcher. Perhaps more interesting were a few mixed flocks, giving us a taste of difficult forest birding. Checker-throated Stipplethroat was seen fairly well, eventually, although Rufous-winged Woodpecker played hard-to-get in the canopy.

Our full day at Rancho started off with a bang when our local guide, Harry, saw a male Lovely Cotinga zip through a gap in the trees down below…we raced down the road, trying not to slip on the wet gravel, and soon were soaking up (pun intended) amazing scope views of this stunner! We then headed out for some roadside birding nearby, first stopping for Sunbittern, and continuing to a mega mixed flock that included Black-and-yellow, Emerald, Speckled, Crimson-collared, Golden-hooded, and Bay-headed Tanagers, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Tawny-capped and White-vented Euphonias, Black-faced Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike, Rufous-rumped Antwren, and more and more…it was nothing short of epic!

Certainly, the highlight of the day was White-throated Flycatcher…Ken’s final empid, and a brilliant study in medium buffy-brown mixing into medium brownish-buff.

From here we headed further down the Caribbean slope, as far as we could go, to the remote outpost of Tortuguero. Heat and humidity had increased noticeably, so we spent a lot of time on boats, exploring the canals near our lodge. Spectacular Great Green Macaws, and a few Scarlets for good measure, were difficult to miss as their raucous screams echoed over the canopy. A female Sungrebe perched in the open just a few meters from our boat, allowing for extensive photographs…before a Green Basilisk ran down the same branch and flushed it! Wow—a truly special experience with a normally shy bird.

Other highlights around Tortuguero included the always-awesome Boat-billed Heron, a juvenile Black-throated Trogon looking somewhat more like an Asian pitta with its extremely short tail and plump body, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Black-crowned Antshrike, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, White-collared Manakin…and who could forget the incredible swift show, set against the backdrop of dozens of scantily-clad tourists in the swimming pool as we dripped in sweat and squinted at the sky? Seriously, though, unbeatable views of Black Swift along with White-collared, Gray-rumped, and Lesser Swallow-tailed was pretty cool.

From here we headed further north, almost to the Nicaraguan border, for a couple of nights at Maquenque Lodge. Our time here was somewhat affected by rain, but thankfully the excellent feeder setup gave us plenty to look at: even Purple Gallinule hopped onto the bananas, along with Gray-headed Chachalaca, Pale-vented Pigeon, Collared Aracari, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Brown-hooded Parrot, Olive-backed Euphonia, Black-cowled Oriole, and throngs of honeycreepers and tanagers. Certainly, the cute award goes to the Northern Jacana chicks that hid under dad’s wings during the rain, with all their feet sticking out! We did manage to escape during bits of “clear” skies, picking up the awkwardly large-billed Nicaraguan Seed-finch, gorgeous Great Currasow, and spectacular King Vultures on nearby roadsides, cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbird dancing around our feet in the dark forest, and Black-throated Wren playing hide-and-seek in the gardens.

Did I mention the rain? We arrived at Celeste Mountain Lodge, the last destination of our tour, to a torrential downpour. All afternoon, all night long. The whole country was being hit by an unusual amount of rain, causing serious flooding especially in the eastern half of the country, but also in the northwest.  It seemed wise to change plans a bit, dropping down towards the Pacific coast where things might be a little drier. This turned out to be a good plan, with lots of new birds: starting with Double-striped Thick-knee and Turquoise-browed Motmot, ending with Jabiru and Thicket Tinamou, plus a Pearl Kite and some confusing Myiarchus flycatchers thrown in for good measure.

Back up at the lodge, we finally caught some breaks from the rain. Tody Motmot surrendered on our final morning, giving nice views on a nearby trail, and we also picked up a Dull-mantled Antbird flashing its white back patch (not so dull-mantled!), White Hawk, Violet-headed Hummingbird, more Snowcaps, and tons of Keel-billed Toucans, among other things. A stunning little Eyelash Viper and an enormous Fer-de-lance in the lodge garden were just icing on the cake…for some, I guess. Am I supposed to mention big venomous snakes in the tour write-up?!

Just like that, it was time to head down to Liberia for our flights home. We had a wonderful time exploring the birdy nooks and crannies of the Caribbean slope and ended up with an impressive number of awesome experiences with birds, mammals, and reptiles. This tiny country never fails to disappoint, and it sure helps to travel with such a fun, flexible, sharp group of people. Thank you all!

Created: 15 November 2021