25 April - 12 May 2000
by Richard Carlson
My wife and I went to Costa Rica from April 25 through May 12, 2000.
We used a few guides but this was mostly self-guided, relaxed, enjoyable birding and touring. We researched it ourselves and enjoyed our independence. We also were able to afford a much longer vacation at less than $200 per day compared to the $500 per day a tour would have cost for the two of us. Costa Rica is just wonderful for an independent traveler. Our Spanish stinks, but English is widely spoken and the people are amazingly friendly and helpful.
We deliberately traveled after Easter. This supposed beginning of the rainy season was beautiful and uncrowded. There were a few light showers during maybe 1/3 of the afternoons. The advantage was near empty hotels and local bird walks with just the two of us instead of the 15 people of the previous week. I’m sure we missed many birds, but my wife loved it so much that she insisted on buying new Leica’s for more serious birding on our return– an ultimate definition of a good birding trip for us non-fanatics.
We used credit cards as much as possible, but also brought travelers checks, which are needed, but a nuisance to find a bank, wait in line and cash. There are a few ATM’s around, but we never tried one.
We saw about 220 species, nearly all of them new, since the U.S. migrants were pretty much gone – fewer species, but easier birding. The following bird lists cover the highlights and new birds at each site. I just skipped the common birds we saw everywhere after the first sighting.
Continental to Houston then to San Jose Note that fares vary a lot. We bought a Northwest “flight” that was on Continental for 2/3 the Continental fare, $500 instead of $800.
Hotel Villa Zurqui 011-506-268-5084 Or 011-506-268-8856 Website at http://www.online.co.cr/zurqui/index2.html Lovely place to stay. Reasonable (about $50 per night) and right off the main highway to the Caribbean side. Very friendly, good food, lovely rooms. Good alternative to certain disaster of trying to drive across the mountains into Braulio Caurillo park at night.
April 26 Villa Zurqui
Good early birding in the fog across the road. Many white –collared swifts and parrots overhead. Rufous Collared sparrows, cattle egrets, Brown Jays, Common Bush Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanagers, Yellow-Green Vireo, Short billed pigeon, Blue and white swallows, Tropical kingbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Then took a taxi over the rain slicked road to the Aerial Tram – our worst drive of the trip, rain, pea-soup fog, boulders in the road, huge trucks driven by maniacs, etc. Do NOT drive this road at night. Aerial tram was a disappointment. Pretty jungle, few birds. The thing never stopped where we wanted it to. Saw a lovely Semiplumbeous hawk, Tawny crested tanager, Purple Crowned Fairy hummingbird, and Orange billed sparrow, but that was about it. The pick-up taxi didn’t show, so we took the bus back, felt much safer .
Rented a car (Dollar kindly delivered it to us). We were delighted with our high clearance Suzuki mini-jeep.
Picked up Guide Richard Garrigues 011-506-293-2710 and website at http://www.angelfire.com/bc/gonebirding/news2.html. The theory was to start out with a guide to get a feel for the area, see some specialty birds and calm my wife who was convinced that we were going to be kidnapped by banditos. Garrigues was perfect for that role. He was born in the U.S. so his English is perfect, he knows his birds and even more important his locations, and is just plain a nice guy. He had a scope and was a perfect introduction to Costa Rica and its birds.
He guided us out of San Jose’s maddening traffic and poorly marked roads and we went to Lancaster Gardens to see the orchids ( my wife’s one trip demand). The Gardens had Tennessee warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Rufous Capped Warbler, Buff-throated and Grayish Saltator, Yellow Throated Brush Finch, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Orange Billed Nightingale Thrush, House Wren, Plain wren, Sulpher Bellied Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Scintallant Hummer, and White Breasted wood Wren. Nearby were Jacanas, Purple Gallinules, Montezuma Oropendolas, Eastern Meadowlark, Bronzed Cowbird, Great Tailed Grackle, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, White-tipped Dove, Barn Swallow, Spotted Sandpipers, Blue-winged Teal, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Coot, Moorhen, and Least Grebe.
Then we drove up Cerro Muerte to Albergue de Montana Tapanti, which has a beautiful overlook and nice, simple rooms for about $50 a night with good food and a very friendly host. Since the Easter crowds were gone, we had the whole place to ourselves. The real beauty of Tapanti is the road to the East down the valley and across to the reserve on the other side, at the end of the road. Afternoon birding was slow but it was like birding in a cathedral as the sun came through the enormous, moss draped, giant oaks. We saw one of everything of most of the mountain specialties: Sooty capped Bush Tanager, large Footed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Wilson’s Warbler, Collared Redstart, Flame Throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Black-cheeked Warbler, Barred Becard, Mountain Robin, Sooty Robin, Black-capped and Olive-sided Flycatchers and Mountain Elaenia.
The next morning it was on to the nearby Finca Mirador de Quetzales (011-506-381-8456) which produced several beautiful Quetzals , along with many Slaty Flower Piercers, Volcano Hummers, Silky Flycatchers, Spotted Crowned Woodcreeper, Rufous tailed and Fiery Throated Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-b Nightingale thrush, Timberline Wren and Grey Breasted wood wren. . This reserve also rents rooms, and the early morning birding could be very good. Finally, we drove to the top of the mountain where we picked up Peg-billed finch and Volcano Junco. The large buses at the top had probably disturbed many of the birds we hoped to see. After the mountain-top, we drove on and dropped off Rich on our way to San Isidro. He had recommended we eat a late lunch at the “sugar mill” below the large cliff with the statue of Christ on the steep hill down into San Isidro. This place was amazing we could almost touch the Swallow-tailed kites, Golden hooded Tanagers, etc. He also recommended Hotel Talari (506-771-0341) which was probably the best buy of the whole trip, at about $40, once we found the place. Coming from the north, the turn-off is to the left in the middle of town just over the first major bridge. After the turn up the hill you drive through endless suburb and then spot the tiny sign. We were lost for hours finding the place, but it was worth the hunt. This place has more tanagers per square foot than any spot I’ve ever been. There were large numbers of Scarlet-rumped, Bay headed and Golden Hooded Tanagers as well as Red-legged Honeycreepers, Yellow-crowned Euphonias, Green backed Herons, Gray Chachalacas, Ruddy Ground Dove, Rough Winged Swallows, Scaly-breasted hummers, Red-crowned woodpeckers, Streak-headed woodcreepers, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Swainson’s thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Green Honeycreeper, Ringed Kingfisher, Variable Seedeaters and Blueblack Grassquit. Many more birds in surrounding areas, wish we had spent more time there.
Birded Talari until it got hot, finding the local Blue-crowned Mot-mot. After an excellent breakfast we drove to the Pacific. Fine road, little traffic, felt like West Virginia. Saw some swallows and a Red-crowned Woodpecker at the bridge at the coast, but not much else. Saw Wood Storks and Caracara along the good gravel road north. I would not drive this thing in the wet season, the one lane bridges look like they wash out every other year. The farther north you go, the more this area turns into palm oil plantation monoculture – few birds, but fun to watch the ancient tractors hauling the palm nuts to the refinery. Finally got to beautiful Costa Verde Inn in Quepos (506-777-0584) Website is http://www.gorp.com/costaverde/index.htm. This place is knock-down gorgeous, both the location and the rooms. A mot-mot sat outside our window and woke us every morning. You see sloths, squirrel monkeys and giant Iguanas from your dinner table. The offshore islands have Brown Boobys, Brown Pelicans, Frigatebirds and lord knows what else. This was one of the few spots I wished I had a scope.
Visited Manuel Antonio National Park, unfortunately on Sunday -- bad timing. The place was a mob scene and it didn’t open until about 8. We were first in and got a local guide whose skills and English were limited. He recognized Toucan calls and was able to locate several troops of monkeys, but that was about it. I found most of the birds in the park, but we saw more from our balcony. We tried hiking around the hotel, but found the trails steep, slippery, and mosquito infested. Best strategy was to sit on the balcony and watch the birds come to us.
These included Thick-billed Euphonia, Palm Tanager, Bananaquit, Riverside Wren, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Black-hooded Antshrike, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Black Swift, Gray-Breasted Martin, Mangrove Swallow, White-crowned Parrot, Gray Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Wood Storks, and Boat-billed Heron.
May 1 –7
Easy drive to Hotel Punta Leona 011- (506) 661-2414 Or 011-506-231-3131 Website at http://www.hotelpuntaleona.com/. This place is truly decadent birding. For $100 per night you get a lovely air conditioned room, a pool overlooking the ocean, hundreds of acres of protected forest, full security and an excellent birding guide. Our guide, Roy Arroyo, was superb. It probably helped that we were the only birders that week. The food was a bit expensive so we drove down the road to eat. This place is almost perfectly situated at the boundary between the dry thorn forest of the north and the humid lowland forest of the south. Incredible numbers and variety of birds. Our pool list included Toucans, Aracaris, honeycreepers, Social and Piratic Flycatchers, Osprey at eye level, and thousands of Eastern Kingbirds flying north every morning. This place is both civilized and wild. We saw Spider monkeys, a silky anteater and a Fer de-Lance, but could also retreat into air-conditioned splendor for our siesta. (A required part of tropical birding unless you’re really fanatic.) There were birds everywhere every morning, including right around the hotel buildings. Fiery-billed Aracaris fed across from the reception desk.
Besides Punta Leona itself, the equally fine and different birding was at the nearby Carara Reserve. Carara has two entrances the southern entrance with the field station and a deep forest trail, and the northern entrance with a trail to the river. Both are excellent, but the park does not open until about 8:30, far too late. No one really cares as long as you pay the entrance fee, but security could be an issue. The guard at both entrances doesn’t come until around 8. We had a suspicious flat tire waiting for us when we returned from an early morning hike. We tried to reserve a guide, but he didn’t show. We also had a theft of cameras from our car at a local beach restaurant. Never leave ANYTHING in your car. The area is especially good for Trogons, we saw 5 species, Slaty-tailed, Baird’s, Violaceous, Black-throated, and Black-Headed . We also saw an Anhinga, Olivaceous Cormorant, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Muscovy Duck, Laughing Falcon, Inca Dove, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Ferrugineous Pygmy Owl, StripedCuckoo, Squirrel Cuckoo, Both Ani’s, Lesser Nighthawk, Band-rumped Swift, Purple Martin, Long-tailed Hermit, Keel-billed Toucan, White-whiskered Puffbird, Hoffman’s woodpecker, Barred Woodcreeper, Buff Throated Foliage-gleaner, Barred Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Dotted Winged Antwren, Orange Collared Manakin, Rose-throated Becard, Masked Tityra, Black-crowned Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, Northern Bentbill, Common-Tody Flycatcher, Slate-headed Tody-flycather, Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Lesser Elaenia, Rufous-breasted Wren, Rufous and White Wren, White-throated Magpie Jays, Green Shrike-vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Gray-headed Tanager, White-shouldered Tanager, Blue-black Grosbeak, Striped-headed Sparrow and Melodious Blackbird.
We had less luck birding nearby Jaco and the Tarcoles river area. Wonderful late afternoon views of Crocodiles and Scarlet Macaws from the Tarcoles bridge, but little afternoon bird action near the river mouth. We did find Green kingfishers, Jacana, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Solitary Sandpiper and Collared Plover at the bridge to the Marriott near Jaco. Another place to stay, Villa Lapas near Carara looked very good. About the same housing cost as Punta Leona when you include meals, but no guides included at VL.
Drove to Hotel de Montana Monteverde 011-506-645-5046. Monteverde is incredible: the birding is incredibly good and the roads are incredibly bad. You drive on boulders, not gravel and meet tour buses tearing around the corner on a one-lane road with cliffs on both sides. Don’t think about driving it at night. The hotel was lovely and empty, the only problem was the expensive food, which was easily solved by walking a block to a restaurant. Birds are everywhere, and the area deserves several days. The best birding spots we found were the Skywalk where you really get into the tops of the canopy, Finca Ecologica (full of Long-tailed Manakins) and of course the reserve itself. In two easy days with no rain we saw several Quetzals, including a pair digging their nest about 20 feet from us, Black Guan, Green Violet ear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing, Purple Throated Mountain Gem, Striped-tailed HB, Coppery-headed Emerald, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Spotted Barbtail, Streaked-breasted Treehunter, Slaty-backed nightingale Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Three-striped Warbler, Silver throated Tanager, White-eared Groundsparrow, Ochraceous Wren, and Long-tailed manakin.
Great birding at the skywalk then took forever driving down the East side of Monteverde. Road terrible, no signs. We would have turned around without 4-wheel drive. Felt lost the whole time (I NEVER get lost). Finally got to lovely Tabacon Lodge website is http://www.tabacon.com/. This is a famous hot springs resort adjacent to active Volcan Arenal. Gorgeous place, full of birds; don’t miss it. We got our room through Tabacon but they were full and put us in a new motel a few miles south. Views of car sized incandescent boulders rolling down the volcano were unforgettable. This is on the Caribbean slope, so we saw new birds. The best birds were seen along the hot water supply pipes above the resort. They included several Toucans, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, Black-striped sparrow, Crimson Collared Tanager, Mealy Parrot and Black cheeked Woodpecker.
After leaving Tabacon, we drove the long windy road to San Jose. Uneventful except for one tree loaded with Oropendola nests. Stayed at Hampton Inn San Jose Airport 011-506-443-0043. No birds but cheap and close to the airport for our early flight.
May 12 Return on Continental via Houston
Costa Rica is unforgettable. We’re returning ASAP.
Richard C. Carlson Full-time Birder, Biker, Skier, Hiker
Palo Alto, California Part-time Economist