11 - 24 March 2000 (actual birding days)
by Paul Blakeburn
Day 1: Day trip to Cerro de la Muerte (Pacific highlands)
Day 2-4: Tiskita Jungle Lodge (E shore of Golfo Dulce, opposite Osa Peninsula)
Day 5-8: Hacienda Solimar (Guanacaste) & Carara Biological Reserve
Day 9-10: Monteverde & Santa Elena Reserve (Pacific highlands)
Day 11-14: La Selva area & Virgen del Socorro (Caribbean slope & lowlands)
SUMMARY: Excellent birding (401 species with over 150 "lifers,") in a wide variety of habitats. Accommodations quite good overall; food generally acceptable, but nothing to rave about. Tour arrangements very good with the significant exception of the minibus provided.
BACKGROUND: The original tour size was 8, but one couple had to pull out at the last minute. This was Paul's first visit to Costa Rica; Linda had spent a total of about 6 months there over several years.
Day 1 (3/11) - Day Trip to Cerro de la Muerte
Leaving the Hotel Ambassador at 6:00 am, we headed East along the Panamerican Highway for highland forest and paramo.. Cerro de la Muerte itself rises to about 12,000 feet, but our first stop was at the 8,000-foot level of Finca del Eddie Serrano/Mirador del Quetzales for breakfast and birding in humid high forest. To protect its wildlife, the Finca requires that visitors use a local guide, and ours was first-rate. We saw not only four Resplendent Quetzals, but also such goodies as Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Mountain Robin/Thrush, Large-footed Finch and - for Lucky Linda only - the elusive Wrenthrush (Zeledonia cornata.) Heard Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, but saw nary a one.
Climbing much higher, we eventually arrived at the antenna installations of the Cerro in paramo habitat at 11,000-plus feet. A diligent search failed at first to produce the target Volcano Junco, but did turn up the uncommon Peg-billed Finch; and the Junco was there for close views and videotaping alongside the road as we left. Not a bad way to start a birding trip, we thought.
Travel to Tiskita would be by chartered light plane, so that night we all sorted out our permitted 25 pounds of stuff to take with us.
Days 2-4 - To Tiskita Jungle Lodge and Back
Out at San Jose's small-plane airport in the early morning, we found that our plane would indeed be small. Two STOL-modified six-seat Cessna 182's would take us, our gear, and an unassociated couple on the hour flight to Tiskita. Linda got the back seat stuffed in with the luggage; Paul got the copilot's perch, where he tried his best to keep his hiking boots out of the way of the rudder pedals. The flight was nicely smooth, and provided a great overview of the rugged Pacific range of mountains and forests giving way to agricultural development along the coast.
Having checked into our comfortable cabins and had breakfast, we set out at 8:00 am with resident Guide/Naturalist Luiz Vargas Ramirez for our introduction to Tiskita's massive property and network of trails. The property rises quickly from a coastal strip into fairly steep hills, so we got a decent workout in our 3-a-day birding ventures (6 am, 8 am and 3:30 pm.) Luiz and Roger worked hard to make sure everyone saw what was found, and the group enjoyed such delights as a Spectacled Owl on his day roost, Bare-throated Tiger Heron in the pond near the airstrip, Blue-throated Goldentails working the flowers around the cabins, Baird's, Black-headed, Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons in the woods, extended study of Great Tinamou doing its Wild Turkey-like foraging in the brush and, among Paul's "Trip Favorites," several good looks at King Vultures close overhead. The real highlight, however, was the unforgettable dance of two male Red-capped Manakins on a branch about 10 feet from us!
The week before, Land Crabs had invaded the cabins and lodge area in force, but we had only a few to trap and evict. Roger and Megan McNeill discovered they had a Rice Rat as a cabin mate. Squirrel Monkeys played and ate fruit on the grounds, Howler Monkeys enlivened the forest, and we came across the occasional Three-toed Sloth on our walks. All in all, a really nice place, though the heat and humidity was quite a contrast to the balmy-to-coolish temperatures of San Jose.
Days 5-8: Hacienda Solimar and Carara Biological Reserve
Off the Tiskita airstrip early on Day 5 after a last birdwalk, we were soon back in San Jose and boarding our minibus for the 100-plus mile drive west and north to the Guanacaste area. And thus began the only bad part of this trip: the Toyota HiAce minibus/van simply wasn't suitable for the purpose. It had less leg-room than even the chintziest airline coach seat, rode like a truck, and eventually proved itself unable to negotiate the slightly muddy road to Santa Elena reserve. We hated it.
Arriving at Hacienda Solimar (near Palo Verde National Park) around noon, we found we had stepped from the steam bath into the sauna. The thermometer read around 95 degrees, and the wind coming across the dry pastureland felt like one had opened an oven door. The hacienda is a working ranch, with what had been the main house converted into several guest rooms and a lounge/dining area. We were housed in a new annex next to the main building, offering four triple rooms open to the breeze on all sides. While each room had a portable fan, attempts at after-lunch naps proved that they didn't cut it. Roger asked for and got an extra fan for each room, which made things slightly better, and it did cool down to around 75 late in the evening.
By 3:30 pm or so, things had cooled off enough for us to set out on our first walk with resident guide Demitrio Peralta. Demitrio's English is a bit limited, but he is univerally recognized as a wizard at bird call imitations. Over the next couple of days, he led us in early-morning and late-afternoon thorough surveys of the ranch's dry scrub, gallery forest, and swamp habitats, regularly finding and attracting really great birds. On the Solimar property we had good looks at the difficult Lesser Ground Cuckoo, a nice covey of Spot-breasted Bobwhite, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Violaceous Trogon, and Double-striped Thick-knee, among others.
Our third day at Solimar, we were up at 4 am for a backtracking trip to the Carara Biological Reserve famed, among other things, for its Scarlet Macaw flights. We enjoyed Mangrove Swallow, Gray-breasted Martins and numerous crocodiles from the bridge west of Carara, and then embarked on a marvelous stroll down the trail in the Biological Reserve. To say that it took us four hours to get to the lagoon perhaps two miles down the trail is a good indicator of the richness of avian diversity in Carara. Several Scarlet Macaws perched where we could see them and, with Demitrio and Roger's help, we saw a total of 78 species in this short stretch of woods. Among the more notable were our first looks at Long-tailed Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, and Purple-crowned Fairy; Pale-billed Woodpecker close enough for good video; Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, and Dusky and Chestnut-backed Antbirds; Rufous Piha, Royal Flycatcher, Northern Bentbill, Rufous-and-white Wren, and Boat-billed Heron on the nest at the lagoon.
By noon we were hot and tired, so we headed for Tarcoles on the coast and a box lunch at a sometime restaurant on the shore of a lagoon. Nearly back to Solimar, we diverted to Colorado on the shore to check its salt pans for shore birds. Only an intrepid few braved the mid-afternoon heat to walk the dikes separating the salt water in its various stages of sun-driven evaporation. - it must have been over 110 degrees - but the effort yielded Stilts, Skimmers, Marbled Godwits, and a few "peeps" to fatten the Trip List.
Day 8 - Solimar to Monteverde and Santa Elena
After a final early walk in the Hacienda's gallery forest, we hit the road for Monteverde. As soon as we turned off the Panamerican Highway, the Monteverde road hit back: that is one rocky, rough, steep road. We eventually reached the Hotel Montana Monteverde, crawled out of the bus, massaged some life into our backsides, and set about exploring the immediate area. Monteverde and Santa Elena preserves are cloud forest, but the town of Monteverde probably could be called humid highland. The extensive hotel property yielded Emerald Toucanet, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and the incredible male Long-tailed Manakin, among others.
Day 9 - Santa Elena Reserve and Monteverde Town Area
The plan was that we'd spend the day in the Santa Elena Reserve cloud forest, with the minibus taking us there early and returning to the hotel to pick up our box lunches. In fact, we barely made it to the reserve, fishtailing much of the way, and the van got stuck and had to be towed twice on its way back for the lunches. (Other small busses and vans made it up and back without apparent difficulty.) The lunches eventually showed up in the hotel's 4WD vehicle, which also took us back. All of this wouldn't have made much difference if the birding in the reserve had been good, but it was a very slow day though we did see a Resplendent Quetzal, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Sooty-capped Bush Tanager. For the afternoon, we decided to try out some lower habitat at the Ecological Ranch on the outskirts of Monteverde town. Here we had better luck, seeing the Three-wattled Bellbirds which one suspects hang around for the fruit provided, White-eared Ground Sparrow, and -surprisingly - Chiriqui Quail-Dove. We finished the day at the (closed) Monteverde Butterfly Gallery, enjoying uncrowded views of Coppery-headed Emerald, the spectacular Green-crowned Brilliant, Purple-throated Mountain Gem, and others. We also were treated to a visit by a Kinkajou which showed up to raid the sugar water feeders.
Day 10 - Monteverde Reserve and Drive to the Caribbean Side
After Day 9's somewhat disappointing results, we decided to hit Monteverde Reserve for a few hours before starting the long drive to the La Selva area. Waiting for Monteverde to open at 8 am, Linda and Paul were lucky enough to see briefly a female Orange-bellied Trogon. Things were still pretty quiet in the cloud forest, but we did see another Resplendent Quetzal, and Roger was able to whistle in a Prong-billed Barbet.
The 6-1/2 hour drive from Monteverde around the west end of Lake Arenal to Selva Verde Lodge was not much fun. We racketed down the rocky road from Monteverde, hit decent pavement for a while, then endured miles of badly pot-holed road around the lake shore. (It looks like somebody tore up the road to redo it, then changed their mind!) We did, however, hear Volcano Arenal thunderously clear its throat, and had a good clear view of the whole mountain at one point. We also picked up Crested Guan in some bushes beside the road.
We arrived at Selva Verde Lodge just in time for a well-earned (we thought) raid on the well-stocked but over-priced bar. Dinner was - are you ready? - meatloaf and mashed potatoes!
Accommodation Note: The physical facilities at Selva Verde Lodge are quite nice. Comfortable rooms are mostly located in separated, elevated modules of eight, linked by lushly landscaped covered walkways to the common areas. The food, however, generally was mediocre at best, and the box lunches had to be experienced to be believed. One day we had three sandwiches: one of two slices of bare bread plus gristly ham; one of bare bread and plastic American style cheese, and one of bread with a thin layer of black beans. Yum! The Lodge really needs to pull up its socks in this area.
Day 11 - Selva Verde Lodge Area
We spent the entire day in the Lodge area, accompanied by our excellent local guide "Paco" Madrigal, covering a good bit of ground and varying habitats in pre-breakfast, morning, and afternoon walks. Some of the highlights included Slaty-breasted Tinamou, White-throated Crake, Gray-chested Dove, a fantastic scope view of a male Black-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeteer, Thick-billed Seed Finch, and lots of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers.
Day 12 - Day Trip to Virgen del Socorro Area
This day we drove about an hour toward San Jose for some mid-level habitat (about 3000 feet,) birding first up along paved road and then down a dirt road and onto a trail beside the Rio Sarapiqui. In the course of the day we learned to recognize the song of the feisty Bay Wren - and even to find him occasionally; and saw Black-and-Yellow Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Rufous Mourner, and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, among others. The real prize, however, was Roger's spotting a pair of BROWN-BILLED SCYTHEBILL actively using a nest on a dead tree in the middle of the river trail. Just finding this bird is a major event, but the kicker is that Styles and Skutch 's "Birds of Costa Rica" says (p.266) the species' nesting habit is "unknown." Note: Roger has received confirmation that this nest is apparently new to science and he and Paco will be writing it up for submission for publication.
That night, we went owling after dinner and were happy to hear Vermiculated Screech, Crested and Least Pygmy Owls respond to taped calls.
Day 13 - La Selva Research Station
You might think that it would be hard to top Day 12, but La Selva's territory was truly memorable. The fun started on the station entrance road, when we got good views of Great and Fasciated Antshrikes and Black-faced Antthrush, and continued through the day with such goodies as Stripe-breasted Wren, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Snowy Cotinga, Great Potoo, Long-tailed Tyrant, Dusky-faced Tanager and - incredibly - good looks at Great, Little and Slaty-breasted Tinamous! Quite a way to end a trip.
Day 14 - Selva Verde to San Jose
As the Virgen del Socorro area is on the way to San Jose, we dawdled a bit to see what might be found and lucked into a Scarlet-thighed Dacnis for the last lifer of the trip.
Back in San Jose about 2 pm, we had plenty of time for those who wanted to do some shopping and sightseeing.
Gulf Breeze, FL