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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in July

2023 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 fun mixed flocks including Black-and-yellow and Speckled Tanagers, plus excellent Sunbittern and iconic male Snowcap, on to La Selva with trogons, toucans, parrots, swifts, and a few sloths for good measure, and to the far north of the country for Nicaraguan Grackle, Yellow-breasted Crake, and great views of Tody and Keel-billed 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 at Tapanti National Park, where we enjoyed a great intro to birding in cloud forest: mixed flocks included Bright-rumped Attila, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Slate-throated Whitestart, and Olive-streaked Flycatcher, while roadside bonuses included a super cooperative Middle American Leaftosser and a female White-bellied Mountain-gem perched for what seemed like ages. We even caught a glimpse of Black-breasted Wood-Quail crossing the road! Before too long, we headed up higher into the Talamanca highlands. Our time in the Savegre Valley area was primarily to look for one of Costa Rica’s most famous residents, Resplendent Quetzal. This proved relatively straightforward, with stunning views of a couple different males and a female perched just off the roadside! In addition to the quetzals, we ended up with a long list of other highlights from easy roadsides and gardens nearby: incredible views of Yellow-winged Vireo, multiple Flame-throated Warblers, feisty Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Northern Emerald-Toucanet at our lunch feeders, cute Torrent Tyrannulets, stunning Black Guans (blue face glowing in the dusk light!), Black-and-yellow Phainoptila (can’t really be a silky-flycatcher, right?), plenty of Long-tailed Silkies, and of course the devil-eyed Volcano Junco up at Cerro de la Muerte.

After our time in the cool highlands, we started our long loop across the Caribbean side of the country, with our first stop being the famous Rancho Naturalista. It was much warmer here, with a completely different suite of birds than Savegre. We spent a good amount of time watching the hummingbird feeders and Verbena bushes, where we enjoyed marvelous views of one of the star birds of Rancho Naturalista…Snowcap! The gorgeous merlot-colored male with his glowing, almost iridescent-white cap is truly one-of-a-kind. A female Black-crested Coquette was a great bonus, too!

We also enjoyed some excellent roadside birding near Rancho. Checking the river, Gary soon spotted a very cooperative Sunbittern…phew! Mission accomplished first thing in the morning. Down the road into some better forest, we encountered excellent activity, with roving flocks of tanagers keeping us particularly busy. Lots of Black-and-yellows stole the show, along with Speckled, Bay-headed, Silver-throated, Emerald, Golden-hooded, and Tawny-crested Tanagers, plus Green Honeycreeper, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis! A flock of Sulphur-winged Parakeets even zoomed in and started feeding on a fruiting tree at nearly eye-level…best views ever. But the day was not over, and we finished at the hummingbird pools near the lodge. It’s an unforgettable experience to look down upon the shimmering hummingbirds as they splash into the pools. Several Crowned Woodnymphs and a particularly snazzy Purple-crowned Fairy made the trip down and back up the stairs well worth it!

From Rancho, we headed towards La Selva, but not without a fantastic stop at Cope’s place on the way. Cope is a local naturalist and artist extraordinaire, who always has some fun birds (and other critters) to show us! We started at his feeder setup, where we were treated to fantastic views of Russet-naped Wood-rail, Long-billed Hermit (and a quick Stripe-throated), Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and more. We then donned our rubber boots and tore ourselves away from the feeders to head into a patch of nearby forest. An extremely muddy trail (more like a river) led us to a spectacular pair of Crested Owls, followed by a pair of Spectacled Owls! Wow! In typical Cope fashion, we were also treated to some Honduran White Bats roosting under a leaf, plus two other species of bats and Blue-Jeans Poison-Dart Frog. What an awesome afternoon. Onward to La Selva!

The famous La Selva Biological Station is always an exciting destination, full of fun birds, reptiles, butterflies, and mammals. Well, our first visit was plagued by more than a bit of rain. We started out with a flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks and a young Gray-headed Kite perched along the entrance road, but then spent most of the morning dodging downpours and hiding under the shelter of various buildings. We eked out a few birds, including Green Ibis, Buff-rumped Warbler, Laughing Falcon, Crested Guan, and some low-flying swifts (mostly White-collared and Gray-rumped, but at least one Black and a few Spot-fronted upon photo review…)

After lunch, we decided to improvise a new plan for the afternoon with the promise of returning to La Selva the following morning. So up into the mountains we went, for a great and easy afternoon of birding at Cinchona. This excellent little restaurant has some great feeders, and we enjoyed several new hummingbirds (Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and Violet Sabrewing among others) along with Red-headed Barbet, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, Crimson-collared Tanager, and more at the fruit. It was nice to escape the rain for a few hours!

And the next morning, our return to La Selva was just excellent. We started with Bat Falcon and Nicaraguan Seed-Finch outside the reserve, and then we were met with nearly constant activity on the trails. Chestnut-colored, Cinnamon, and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers performed brilliantly, followed by a hulking Pale-billed Woodpecker. Trogons kept popping up, with multiple Slaty-tailed and Gartered perched just over the trail. Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots were seen very well. Squirrel Cuckoos cackled and flew through the canopy. The understory even surrendered a Black-throated Wren gathering nesting material, a brilliant male Fasciated Antshrike, plus scarce Dusky-faced Tanager and a begging juvenile Bay Wren! Wow…an excellent morning, and there was more to come in the afternoon!

From La Selva, we worked our way north towards Caño Negro. Once we reached our destination near the Nicaraguan border, we enjoyed a fine afternoon boat trip through the wetlands of Medio Queso. Our local guide, Rosi, was fantastic and helped us find a number of awesome birds: the highly-localized Nicaraguan Grackle performed well, along with at least three Yellow-breasted Crakes, a Pinnated Bittern, a family of four Jabirus, and more common wetland species like Northern Jacana, Green Heron (dozens!), Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Wood Stork…the list goes on and on. The next morning we took another boat ride with Rosi in a different part of this massive wetland complex. We struck gold with at least three American Pygmy Kingfishers, including one female that sat in the open for an extended view. Boat-billed Heron, Black-collared Hawk, and Pacific Screech-Owl were also very much appreciated!

We arrived at Celeste Mountain Lodge, the last destination of our tour, to relatively pleasant weather (okay, a bit of rain here and there…) and relatively few new birds left to look for! However, we did really well in this area and had such a great time (I was going to say quality over quantity, but we actually did pretty well on quantity, too!). First and foremost, let’s talk about the quality of the food…oh my. Costa Rican food prepared by a classically-trained French chef? Yes please. On the birding front, we simply enjoyed repeat views of tons of great birds that we had already seen, with some incredible new species sprinkled throughout. Our first afternoon, just down the road from the lodge, I decided to try for Keel-billed Motmot at a little patch of roadside forest. Not expecting it to actually work…a Keel-billed Motmot flew up and perched below eye-level for about ten minutes. Full-frame scope views, tons of photos…wow! It’s not usually that easy. And the Rio Celeste waterfall trail was good for the always-tricky Tody Motmot, which played hide-and-seek for a while and eventually sat still for scope views.

We were lucky to arrange a visit to Tapir Valley, a private nature reserve with excellent birding and facilities. I had never been here before, but I think we all left quite impressed. Highlights here were many: Ornate Hawk-Eagle, White Hawk, Snowcap, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Great Curassow, Purple-crowned Fairy, Rufous-winged Tanager, Northern Bentbill…yep, that was quite the grand finale for the final morning of the tour!

Too soon, it was time to head to Liberia for our flights home. We had a wonderful time exploring the birdy nooks and crannies of Costa Rica and ended up with an impressive number of awesome experiences with birds (and mammals and reptiles!). This tiny country never fails to impress. It was wonderful to travel with such a great group. Thank you, all, for your flexibility, patience, and good spirits. See you down the road!



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