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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Costa Rica in Spring

2024 Narrative

Another wonderful tour to Costa Rica, with great sightings of birds and other wildlife: an antswarm with Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers at arm’s length, repeated views of Scarlet and Great Green Macaws, the much-desired Resplendent Quetzal, an amazing young male Three-wattled Bellbird, two golden Eyelash Pit-Vipers, too-colorful Fiery-billed Aracari, an unexpected Sunbittern, roosting Crested and Spectacled and Black-and-white Owls…wow! There is so much diversity packed into this little country, and our tour had a great time sampling a broad mix of habitats and birdlife. Costa Rica always holds so many memorable sightings, all connected with good infrastructure, comfortable lodging, and tasty food. Of course, we couldn’t have done it without our amazing more-than-a-driver, Grevin (Treinta)! Until next time!

We departed San Jose quite early and headed for the highlands, this time to the Poas volcano (as we were running the tour in reverse order). The first morning is always exciting, even with sun and wind making for less-than-optimal birding conditions. We picked through the blustery canopy and saw our first Mountain Elaenia, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Flame-throated Warbler, and to top it all off, a pair of Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers right along the roadside! A great intro to the Costa Rican highlands. Dropping down the Caribbean slope, we made a quick stop at a roadside patch of flowers with plenty of Scintillant Hummingbirds, and eventually made it to our lunch stop at Cinchona. This unassuming little restaurant never disappoints…it’s overwhelmingly birdy, in a good way! Scarlet-rumped and Silver-throated and Blue-gray and Palm and Crimson-collared Tanagers crowded the feeders, along with a trio of Northern Emerald-Toucanets, a handful of Common Chlorospingus, and stunning Prong-billed and Red-headed Barbets! Meanwhile, the hummingbird feeders buzzed with Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, a couple Coppery-headed Emeralds, and single White-bellied Mountain-gem and Black-bellied Hummingbird. Phew!

The next morning we headed up into the foothills of Braulio Carrillo National Park, with lots of new birds waiting along the trails. We saved the best for first, as an incomparable Sunbittern fed along the creek and flashed its ridiculous wing pattern…wow! Other highlights at the park included a pair of Northern Black-throated Trogons, Broad-billed Motmot, Cinnamon Woodpecker, an incredibly cooperative flock of Black-and-yellow and Emerald Tanagers, scarce and stunning Blue-and-gold Tanager, and a female Snowcap feeding in a flowering tree right at the entrance. It was relatively difficult work in the dense, dark forest, so for the afternoon we opted to change gears and try the nearby Centro Manu, where a male Snowcap performed brilliantly along with a roosting Great Potoo!

Our morning at La Selva started with a brief roadside stop for Scarlet and Great Green Macaws, much appreciated, and continued into the forest, where things were relatively quiet…but it was quality over quantity. A male Great Curassow perched up and sang its low booming song, and not long after, we stumbled upon a Great Tinamou foraging peacefully near the trail. La Selva is good for tinamous, but this was an especially memorable view, perhaps the longest and closest I’ve ever had! Other goodies included two golden Eyelash Pit-Vipers (maybe the bird of the day!), Blue-jeans and Green-and-black Poison-dart Frogs, plus Crested Guans, Blue-chested Hummingbirds, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, White-collared Manakin, tons of Olive-backed Euphonias, a male Hooded Warbler, and an enormous flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks.

We moved on in the afternoon to visit our friend Cope, who was kind enough to show us his amazing feeder setup and nearby patches of forest. Every visit to Cope is special indeed, and today was perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. The feeders were absolutely pumping, with incredible views of Chestnut-headed and Montezuma Oropendolas, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Shining and Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, and even a surprise American Pygmy Kingfisher feeding over the pond! He took us on a muddy hike and we tracked down roosting Crested and Spectacled Owls…absolutely stunning views, totally in the open, low down! Wow. What a perfect way to wrap up the day!

We awoke the next morning to heavy rain, but our slightly delayed breakfast came with an additional stroke of luck when Dana spotted a female Black-crested Coquette feeding just outside. Very nice! After loading up we did some more birding near the La Selva entrance, with repeat views of Great Green and Scarlet Macaws, Bat Falcon, Canebrake Wren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Cinnamon Becard, Plain-colored Tanager, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, among others. Before too long, it was time to say goodbye to the Sarapiquí region and head further west towards Arenal. We enjoyed a delicious lunch with plenty of birds to distract us (Boat-billed Heron and Russet-naped Wood-Rail were particularly exciting!) and then did a short walk on a nearby trail. A roosting Black-and-white Owl stole the show, but it was hard to ignore the supporting cast, which included stunning Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Broad-billed Motmot, Fasciated and Barred Antshrikes, Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Long-billed Gnatwren, and a fancy hybrid Golden-winged X Blue-winged Warbler.

Next up: Arenal Observatory Lodge, always enjoyable, with beautiful foothill forest surrounding the lodge and volcano. Just birding around the feeders is exciting, with Great Curassows giving extended views, and dazzling Emerald Tanagers even hopping up the walkway (with Bay-headed and Rufous-winged in the nearby trees!). But the real prize was on a forest trail, where we lucked into a swarm of army ants…and hopping around just a few feet away was a squadron of Spotted Antbirds, a couple Bicolored Antbirds, and a pair of Northern Barred-Woodcreepers! It was mesmerizing to watch these birds in their element, totally unconcerned about a small group of human onlookers.

From Arenal it was up to Monteverde, with a fun local lunch stop and some White-throated Magpie-Jays on the way. It can be challenging to navigate the crowds at Monteverde, but we always come away with some great sightings. The dense fog hampered morning activity, but little by little, we picked out some birds…starting at the hummingbird feeders with a couple new species (Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar), moving on to a much-appreciated Yellowish Flycatcher and singing Black-faced Solitaire, and picking through some mixed flocks with Common Chlorospingus, Costa Rican Warbler, Spotted Barbtail, Ruddy Treerunner, and a stunning male Golden-winged Warbler.

One of the more unexpected moments of the tour came at lunch in town, where our waitress at the restaurant showed us a video of Elegant Euphonias coming to roost in a small tree just off the restaurant deck. Apparently they’d been coming in every night for over a year, and views would be absolutely incredible…so we vowed to return in the late afternoon, and luck was on our side when a dozen adorable Elegant Euphonias showed up, just a few feet away! Wow! Surely the best views I’ve ever had of this species.

Another morning of birding around Monteverde, this time at Curi-Cancha reserve, gave us a final taste of the cloud forest (with Ruddy Woodcreeper, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia), before heading downslope to the hot, dry Pacific lowlands. We were aiming for Ensenada Lodge for lunch, but not without a couple quick roadside stops for Double-striped Thick-knee and Black-headed Trogon. Upon arrival at Ensenada, I hopped off the bus and immediately heard a loud “BONK!!!”…that sounded an awful lot like a Bellbird! Not wanting to believe my ears (maybe it was a weird magpie-jay?!), we searched the trees and eventually found the culprit…yep, an immature male Three-wattled Bellbird! One of Costa Rica’s most special birds, sitting still for us to admire. Wow! What a highlight.

Heading further south to the town of Tárcoles, with much anticipation for our boat trip on the Tárcoles River the following morning…this trip is always enjoyable, and this year certainly continued the trend. The temperature was perfect, and there was always something to look at: Bare-throated Tiger-Herons everywhere, Ringed, Belted, Amazon, and Green Kingfishers, Yellow-naped Parrots and Scarlet Macaws flying over, Turquoise-browed Motmot, lots of shorebirds on the mudflats (including Collared and Wilson’s Plovers), tons of Magnificent Frigatebirds, an insanely cooperative Mangrove Vireo, and even a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail that flew across the channel! We recorded over 100 species in just a couple hours on the boat.

From Tárcoles, we continued the long journey to the Osa Peninsula, where we were to spend the next three nights at the delightful Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge. Owners Liz and Abraham made sure we were comfortable and very well-fed. Birding here is always exciting, and this year was no different. We split our time between the narrow forest trails and easy roadsides, with a whole range of birds to keep us occupied. Right around the lodge, hoards of Blue Ground-Doves were enjoyed at the feeders, along with endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager and scarce White-crested Coquette at a flowering tree. The Boat-billed Heron pond lived up to its name, and an adult on a nest with a young chick was especially appreciated. Trail walks were tough work, with rewards in the mixed flocks including Long-tailed Woodcreeper (!!), White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner. Roadside birding was super active, with Scarlet Macaws a regular sight, several great Fiery-billed Aracaris, and various flycatchers, tanagers, and euphonias to keep us occupied. We even embarked on a short hike up a creek to look for White-tipped Sicklebill, although we were dismayed to find the nest tree had been cut down just the day before. The Golfo Dulce Poison-dart Frog on the way back was some consolation.   

We took the bus out one morning, first to the Rincón bridge to look for the rare and gorgeous Yellow-billed Cotinga (a great success!), and then to nearby Playa Sándalo, where our main target was in the bag within about 5 minutes…the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird! However, that wasn’t even the most memorable sighting…Abraham had found a Common Potoo nest, complete with a young fluffy muppet-like chick! Wow! Absolutely incredible…the supporting cast of Mangrove Warbler, Baird’s Trogon, White-necked Puffbird, and Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth was nothing to scoff at, either.

Too soon, it was time to head away from the heat and humidity and birds of the Osa and make our way up into the Talamanca mountains. Once we reached the highlands, new birds came fast and furious, with just a quick stop at La Georgina producing numerous Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a pair of Yellow-winged Vireos, Large-footed Finch, and Yellow-thighed Brushfinch. All these birds were quite fun, but understandably, most of the group had a particular bird in mind for the next morning……the king of the Savegre Valley, and one of the most beautiful birds in the world, Resplendent Quetzal! Thankfully, luck was on our side. We waited on the roadside near a fruiting tree, first hearing a quetzal singing downslope, and eventually…there it was! A dazzling male Resplendent Quetzal, moving perches a few times so we could admire all angles. Of course, the spectacle also attracted at least 67 other people, so we eventually went back to the lodge for breakfast and continued on with our birding. Walking along the roadside through gorgeous cloud forest produced mixed flocks here and there, filling gaps in our list…Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Tufted and Black-capped Flycatchers, Barred Becard, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-cheeked Warbler….. and even another male Resplendent Quetzal, this one sitting still for even longer!

After lunch at Miriam’s (good for hoardes of Flame-colored Tanagers and some Acorn Woodpeckers plus tasty food!) and a siesta, we headed down the valley for an easy afternoon walk and some feeder-watching. Collared Trogons and Long-tailed Silkies showed brilliantly, along with the distinctive Costa Rican subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. More Scintillant Hummingbirds were much appreciated, but most unexpected were the flocks of Barred Parakeets flying overhead, totaling at least 600 birds…must be bamboo seeding somewhere?!

Our final day of birding started around the lodge (with American Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet), climbed to the high paramo of Cerro de la Muerte (where our hoped-for Volcano Junco performed well, eventually), and ended at the brilliant Paraiso Quetzal lodge for lunch and more highland birds. Missing from our list at this point was Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and luckily, we enjoyed great views of a pair right off the deck! The hummingbird feeders attracted many Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and Long-tailed Silkies fed on berries just a few feet away…a lovely way to finish our birding time in Costa Rica.

All too soon, it was time to head back through the bustle of San Jose and onward to the airport the next morning. With 453 species recorded by the group in just two weeks, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is such a popular destination! From quetzals and macaws to woodcreepers and antbirds, it was a wonderful tour. A special shout-out to our amazing driver, Grevin, for keeping us safe (and entertained!) during our time in the country. And thank you all for your patience, flexibility, and good fun!

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