13 - 27 April 1996
by Francis Toldi
These notes and accompanying list summarize my birding results on a two week trip to Costa Rica. I have notes on preparation for a Costa Rica trip (resources, study tips, etc.). If you would like a copy, I would be happy to e-mail or snail mail you a copy. This trip was in two parts. The first, from April 13-19 was an intensive birding trip with my brother, John Toldi, and covered La Pacífica, Carara/Tárcoles, Poás, Selva Verde and Rara Avis. The second part was a family trip, where birding occurred less frequently and more casually. On that part of the trip we stayed at the Savegre Lodge/Cabinas Chacón, the Wilson Botanical Garden and Tiskita Lodge. This was my third and my brother's first trip to Costa Rica.
Saturday April 13, 1996.
We arrived in San José at about 7:30 a.m., after spectacular views of the Lago de Nicaragua, the Guanacaste region and the volcanos of the Cordillera Central. We only managed a few hours of sleep, but the excitement of being in Costa Rica provided plenty of energy. There were no problems in getting luggage, renting the car and getting on our way. Money changers are a little scarce at that hour, so it's not a bad idea to exchange some dollars (perhaps $50) into colones prior to departure (but the rate is far worse than you can get virtually anywhere in Costa Rica). We found an excellent supermarket (Mas-X-Menos) on the old highway to Alajuela, just 5-10 minutes from the airport. It was a good place to stock up on crackers, fruit, bread, tuna, water, etc.
Highway 1 was its usual smelly, crowded self. There was a traffic delay of over an hour at some point along the way for construction. Conditions change daily, but if I drove that stretch again soon I would seriously consider going around (via Atenas, Orotina and Puntarenas). We had fun along the way picking out easy birds that were nevertheless new for the trip (a few lifers for John).
We arrived at La Pacífica in the early afternoon, and after a quick swim, shower and change of clothes headed out for some afternoon birding. We drove the back road south from Bebedero back to the Panamerican Highway (Highway 1). This is the road mentioned in Keith Taylor's Birder's Guide to Costa Rica ("Taylor"). Even in the afternoon there were plenty of good birds, including many Guanacaste specialties such as Spot-bellied Bobwhite (heard only) Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting's Flycatcher, White-throated Magpie Jay, Stripe-headed Sparrow and Streak-backed Oriole, not to mention a Crested Caracara eating a coral snake and a migrating flock of over 150 scissor-tailed Flycatchers! It was also interesting to study the abundant Blue Ground Doves, with Ruddy Ground Doves nearly absent. Blue Ground Dove is usually listed as a common bird in various Costa Rica locations, but I have generally seen very low numbers of them. The gravel road was bumpy, but manageable in our Nissan sedan.
La Pacífica is a great place. It is both comfortable and quite birdy, and the food is better than decent. English is spoken, but like everywhere else in Costa Rica if you make an attempt to speak Spanish (even when the other person speaks English) you will be greatly rewarded! Throughout this trip we were surprised at the high vacancy rates. We were frequently one of only a few parties at each place we stayed. Even the few reservations we had would not have been absolutely essential. Apparently the high season ends immediately following Easter. We easily heard Pacific Screech Owls calling as we walked from the La Pacífica restaurant back to our cabina after dinner.
Sunday, April 14.
We slept the sleep of the dead, but still managed to get up at 5:00 a.m. to begin the day's birding. We basically walked up and down the trail along the south side of the Río Corobicí. Without ever really finding any feeding flocks we saw a steady stream of excellent birds, including Boat-billed Heron (check along the small spur trails that go closer to the river, within a few hundred yards of the entry gate from La Pacífica to the main trail), Gray-fronted Dove (a rarity, on La Pacífica grounds), Orange-fronted Parakeet (hard to see, zipping overhead), White-fronted Parrot, Steely-vented Hummingbird (common), Cinnamon Hummingbird (one only), Plain-capped Starthroat, Black-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Manakin (heard all over, but saw female only) Rufous-naped Wren, Rufous-and white Wren, Banded Wren, both gnatcatchers, and a lot of others.
As we made the afternoon drive to Carara, we stopped at the spot mentioned in Taylor for Double-striped Thick-Knee (10 K south of Cañas, 3.1 K west on dirt road), and standing in the shade of a tree at the designated spot stood the fellow himself (the bird, not Keith!)! The turnoff to Highways 17 and 34 to Puntarenas and Caldera was not marked. Our diligent scrutiny of all vultures seen along the way paid off when, just south of Caldera, we found our first King Vulture. Another quick stop in the same vicinity in dry forest produced a Scrub Euphonia in the southernmost portion of its range. Throughout the region there are many traffic police officers standing beside the road with radar guns. Stick to the limit, even if it feels slow and the locals are passing by you!
We reached Carara in the mid-afternoon. A stop on the Río Tárcoles Bridge produced a very large Crocodile and a Bare-throated Tiger Heron on the north bank, east of the bridge. If you haven't managed to see a Mangrove Swallow yet, it would be hard to miss here! The rural police post an officer with an automatic rifle to guard cars and passengers at this now notorious spot. He is there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We left our car there (fully loaded, but with nothing in view) for an hour while we walked the small trail that heads east along the Carara boundary. There were an extraordinarily large number of birds--incredible activity for the hottest time of the day. Red-legged Honeycreeper, Elaenias, Barred Antshrike, and more. John saw a Black-capped Tityra, but I missed it.
We stayed in Tárcoles, in the main hotel right off the main "commercial district." It is well marked with a "hotel" sign on the road, but I don't recall seeing the specific name of the hotel anywhere. It was very simple, but clean and comfortable enough, and about $30 for the two of us. It looked like its primary business was beach-bound weekend residents of San José. We were the only guests on this Sunday night. We drove up to the Tárcoles river mouth, first to a pullout near the Tarcol Lodge, where we scoped a good number of roosting shorebirds and herons and later, via Tárcoles beach and a good-sized mangrove patch, the actual river mouth. We decided to make this latter spot our early morning birding location, since Carara opens a bit late. We ended the day on the Río Tárcoles bridge, watching Scarlet Macaws fly into the sunset, then had an excellent though simple dinner at the nearby restaurant grandly named the Restaurante Ecológico Cocodrillo. Whatever they want to call it, its a good deal, with good food, and the same refreshing Imperiales as at the fancy places.
Monday, April 15.
A pre-dawn drive yielded Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, but no other owls or rails. At the Tárcoles river mouth we managed to find a Collared Plover, but the tide was out and the birds widely dispersed. The nearby mangroves produced a Panama Flycatcher and abundant Yellow (Mangrove) Warblers, but no other mangrove specialties. Lesser Nighthawks were roosting all over the place. We couldn't walk more than 50 feet along the beach near the mangroves without stirring up another one. With more time and more thorough coverage this area could undoubtedly produce many more species. Access is best as described in Greg and Debra Jackson's field notes (ABA Foreign Field Notes N-82)(park near soccer field, walk across field to the beach, then north along the beach to the mangroves and river mouth).
We waited outside the Carara headquarters until the gate opened at about 7:15 a.m. The wait was no problem because the trees were teeming with birds, especially parrots (including Yellow-naped). We decided to leave the car at the headquarters and walk to the Vigilancia trail. In fact, the Vigilancia trailhead was unguarded when we entered and when we left, so our choice was probably a good one. The walk was a bit hot on the way back, but it's not really very far (2 K?). I imagine many people ignore the posted entry time and go in early, but I'm glad we didn't (and we saw plenty of birds in the meanwhile).
The Vigilancia trail was surprisingly unbuggy--shorts and short sleeves would have been fine. The birds were as magnificent as expected, well into the day. Among the highlights were King Vulture, White-tailed Hawk, Scarlet Macaw, Baird's Trogon (perched over the trail about 1 K in), American Pygmy Kingfisher (in a little swampy ditch on the side trail directly opposite the ox-bow), White-whiskered Puffbird (right on the trail within 50 yards of the entrance gate), Fiery-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Royal Flycatcher (at the first concrete stream crossing, exactly as mentioned in the Jackson's notes!), Golden-collared Manakin, and innumerable antshrikes, flycatchers and tanagers. We just missed the Spectacled Owl on the roost mentioned by Taylor, thanks to a couple of very friendly but heavy-footed fellows that scared the owl off the roost minutes before we got there. There were also easy to see Howler Monkeys, White-headed Capuchin and Coatamundis.
As a parting gift from this marvelous spot we found a Lesser Ground Cuckoo--which we had missed around Cañas--which was walking along well up on the north bank of the Río Tárcoles. Stiles & Skutch indicate that it's range is "south to the Río Tárcoles!"
We drove back to the San José area, did a little business (bank and groceries), then headed up to Poás via the "back route" mentioned in Taylor. The road was a bit confusing in places, but we managed to find our way to the intended spot. We spent the night at the Albergue Ecológico La Providencia, the last lodging before the gates of Poás. The 2 K gravel road in (probably the gravel road referred to in Taylor) was about as much as our little sedan could manage, but would have been easy in anything with clearance. La Providencia is a magical spot. It is perched on a ridge at about 2500 meters, next to some fine mature oak forest, with spectacular views of the Meseta Central far below. It is very comfortable but very rustic, with no electricity and no English spoken. The 5 or 6 cabinas are spread out along the ridge, not in view of one another. We were the only ones there. We had a delicious dinner in the charming little restaurant, sitting alone by candlelight. Later we sat in our cabina going over the day's sightings, again by candlelight, to the sound of calling Dusky Nightjars and Bare-shanked Screech-Owls. An evening walk also produced calling Andean Pygmy-Owl.
On walks in the late afternoon and early the next morning in this area we found many of the typical montane species, including Green-fronted Lancebill, Volcano Hummingbird, Resplendant Quetzal (heard only, boo hoo!), Emerald Toucanet, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-billed Nightingale Thrush, Sooty Robin, Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher (1 K up the gravel road from the Poás highway, just past the microwave service buildings), Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher and Slaty Flowerpiercer.
Tuesday April 16.
After a very filling breakfast at La Providencia we spent much of the morning birding on Poás. Consistent with my previous birding on Poás, the birds were scattered here and there in only small numbers, although we found a few more highland specialties, including Scintillant Hummingbird, Mountain Elaenia, Ochraceous Wren (heard only), Mountain Robin, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finch (on the nature trail). A fellow we met reported Peg-billed Finch in the Poás parking lot, but we weren't so lucky. On the whole the birds were better in the slightly lower forest at La Providencia, although there were species within the park proper that we didn't see at La Providencia (the birds listed above).
Then on to Selva Verde, with brief mid-day stops at La Paz Falls (birdless, except for a cooperative Dipper) and Virgen del Socorro (too late in the day for much, but we did manage to hear Nightingale Wrens and see other birds including Crimson-collared Tanager). Next time I go to Costa Rica I will definitely plan at least one full prime morning at Virgen del Socorro.
We were not wild about the atmosphere at Selva Verde. Of course it is very comfortable, clean and the staff friendly, but the whole complex seemed very Disneyland-like, especially after the intimate purity of La Providencia. The food was pretty average--the worst we had in Costa Rica, frankly. We stayed out in the new cabinas on the east side of the road, which was a good move. It was peaceful and beautiful, and even better, within a few hundred yards of our cabina we saw a pair of Great Green Macaw (an incredible stroke of luck--I never expected to see one), lekking White-collared Manakins, Keel-billed Toucan, Black-and-White Owl (calling at dusk and dawn), and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (our most controversial sighting--it was unquestionably the bird, seen well in good light, but it seems very late in the year to see one still in the lowlands). Further walks on trails through Selva Verde's secondary forest (i.e. in the vicinity of the cabinas, not across the river) and around the main lodge buildings that afternoon and the next morning turned up a multitude of other exciting birds (Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Slaty-tailed Trogon (nesting), Rufous Motmot, Checker-throated Antwren, Pale-vented Robin (near the butterfly aviary), Buff-rumped Warbler (near the river), Olive-backed Euphonia, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and many others), not to mention the ubiquitous Howler Monkeys, an Agouti, and lots of Dendrobates pumilio "poison arrow" frogs.
Wednesday - Friday, April 17-19.
We woke up before dawn and drove out to the entrance gate to La Selva. We didn't have reservations for La Selva, so we stayed outside the property, and just birded along the road outside the gate for a couple of hours. We had high hopes for Pink-billed Seed Finch, but didn't see any. We did find quite a number of birds, however, including White-throated Crake (heard only), Collared Aracari, White-winged Becard, Black-cowled Oriole and Yellow-billed Cacique.
After a brief stop back at Selva Verde (see above), we reported to the Rara Avis headquarters in Las Horquetas around 8:30 a.m. As far as I am concerned Rara Avis is heaven on earth, not to mention a very worthy project (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I AM A RARA AVIS SHAREHOLDER!). I had been there seven years earlier, and it was quite different this time, but no less magnificent. This time it was more comfortable and the trails were much better, although I missed the rugged isolation of the earlier days (we were the only ones there last time!). Previously it would have been inconceivable to walk around much on your own, but that is the only way we did it this time (with excellent suggestions on which of the well-marked trails might be productive from the Rara Avis staff). We left the car at the headquarters, a safe but expensive alternative, since the car sits collecting daily charges while you go up to Rara Avis. Taking a bus or even a taxi makes more sense, but then you don't have the luxury of birding along the way.
Access can still be challenging. The tractor couldn't make it in the day we went in until much later in the afternoon (too much rain, roads too slippery), so we walked almost all the way in (12 K or so) in the rain. On the other hand, the walk was lovely, and I enjoyed arriving quietly rather than with the clanking and banging of the tractor. In fact, we liked walking in so much that we voluntarily walked all the way out when we left. On my first trip we rode in and out on horseback, also a nice way to go.
We spent two nights there, birding constantly. We saw and heard around 120 bird species there and on the way up and back. Highlights were Barred Hawk, White Hawk, Slaty-backed and Collared Forest Falcons, Green Thorntail (up the Bromelia Trail), Black-bellied Hummingbird (right on the road , about 1/2 K down from the Lodge; first Rara Avis record), Purple-crowned Fairy, Lattice-tailed Trogon (heard only, but common), Dull-mantled and Ocellated Antbirds, Fulvous-bellied Antpitta (heard only, local but not rare) White-crowned Manakin (Bromelia Trail), Southern Nightingale Wren (heard only), Golden-crowned Warbler, 21 species of tanager, including Emerald, White-shouldered, Tawny-crested, White-lined, Black-and-yellow, Shining Honeycreeper and Ashy-throated Bush Tanager, and Black-faced Grosbeak. Among the best bets for birding are the open areas around the Waterfall Lodge, the Azul and Guacimal trails, and the top of the Bromelia trail, right at the border of Braulio Carrillo park (the upper part reaches the next altitudinal zone; the lower part is a real mud pit). We had a superb tanager show right at the bridge over the river near the Lodge just before breakfast. Most of the tanager species we saw at Rara Avis were represented in this huge feeding flock that lasted almost a half hour. Getting out early (before breakfast) is essential for listening for shy and rare birds such as antpittas, and if you are incredibly lucky, for seeing one. You can check back in for breakfast, then head back out for more birds. If you have the energy, at least try to walk out. We saw many good birds on the way (including the two forest falcons), and it is very scenic. Loafing around the Lodge can also be a good strategy. One fellow saw a Sun Bittern on the river next to the lodge while we were out on the trails!
I also climbed up via rope 100 feet into a tree house then under
but which is probably now finished. This is Don Perry's latest
venture, and is quite promising. The trip up and down is
though not necessarily birdy. Hanging 75 feet off the ground,
(without touching) a bromeliad and how it anchors to the tree is really
something. The view from the top is also marvelous.
We spent Friday night in San Isidro de Heredia, at La Posada de la Montaña, a North-American run motel/inn near San José. I highly recommend it as a base for arriving, departing, and when touring in the San José area. The proprietor, John Watkins, can also arrange airport pickup and make other reservations for you in Costa Rica. That could be especially helpful if your Spanish isn't up to speed. There is a Blue-crowned Motmot that nests on the grounds. We heard Tropical Screech-Owl at night, and early the next morning found White-eared Ground-Sparrow in an adjoining coffee plantation.
Saturday, April 20.
At the airport by 6:30 a.m., I bid a sad farewell to my brother. We had had an incredible week: miles of beautiful terrain, friendly people, superb lodging and 326 species of birds identified. I can't imagine a better birding companion! A couple of hours later I met up with my wife, Leigh, our 6 year old daughter Alicia, and my father- and mother-in-law, Ted and Marty. It was great to be reunited with my family, and to continue this wonderful trip. I had swapped our little Nissan for a Range Rover, rented from Rent-a Rover in Cartago. We hadn't really needed 4-wheel drive on the first part of the trip, but I wanted to be sure that this part was very comfortable. As it turned out, we wouldn't really need it on this part either, although the 4WD and the high clearance certainly made negotiating the potholes easier. The Rover had a problem with the rear seat belts, so we had to stop in Cartago to switch cars. In the new Rover we headed on up the Cerro de la Muerte to the Savegre Lodge (a.k.a. Cabinas Chacón). The road in to Savegre is a bit steep in places, which could be intimidating for some drivers.
Upon arrival at Savegre as we were unloading our bags, I heard a Resplendant Quetzal calling from the oaks immediately behind the cabinas. We dropped the bags, and within a couple of minutes a male flew up onto a branch about 50 feet away, giving us back, then side, then front views. Hummingbirds of various species were zipping around the garden (Magnificent, Scintillant and Volcano Hummingbirds, Green Violet-ear, and Purple-throated and White-throated Mountain Gems). As far as Alicia was concerned, the best part of all was the little playground, complete with swings and see-saws. While the adults took much needed naps, Alicia and I played and birded ("Papa, push me on the swing!" "OK dear, just a second while I check out the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher."). Right in front of the dining room we had a remarkable daytime view of an Andean Pygmy Owl holding a freshly killed Rufous-collared Sparrow while hordes of robins mewed and shrieked.
Although we were never able to get into the surrounding wild forest, in short walks that afternoon and the next morning around the grounds and up the hill a little ways we did see many birds. The species list included Ruddy Pigeon, Emerald Toucanet, more Quetzals, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Mountain Elaenia, Torrent Tyrannulet, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (finally a good look!), Western Tanager (a very rare migrant--surprising, but well seen), Black-thighed Grosbeak, Slaty Flowerpiercer and Yellow-bellied Siskin.
Monday - Wednesday, April 21-23.
We left Savegre in the mid-morning. I was astonished at how much better the condition of the Panamerican Highway was going over the Cerro. A considerable amount of roadwork had been done recently, and more was underway. The ferocious weather and heavy truck traffic can destroy a road quickly, but for now the road is in pretty good shape. Unfortunately the roadwork effort had not reached the stretch of highway between San Isidro and Paso Real. That road was in horrible shape, with many hard to see axle-breakers lying in wait. The quaint old ferry over the Río Térraba has been replaced at long last by a big concrete bridge. I much preferred the clunky old ferry, but I can imagine the locals feel otherwise!
The Wilson Botanical Garden is one of my favorite places in the world. It is a superb botanical garden with large collections of many tropical plants from around the world surrounded by a high quality wild secondary forest, and adjoining a large tract of primary forest. It is also a working station of the Organization for Tropical Studies, the folks who bring you La Selva. Accommodations at the garden are comfortable and beautiful, but not cheap. A very workable alternative is to stay in town (San Vito), where very inexpensive, clean and comfortable hotels are located. Of course, if you stay in town, you miss the fun of eating with the visiting scientists and biology students who are usually happy to talk at length about their fascinating research.
Not only is the list of birds exceptional, but it is an excellent place to learn more about the forest in which the birds you have been madly chasing all over the country live. In a few days of very casual birding here and at the nearby San Joaquin Marsh (good directions in Taylor) we found such species as Masked Duck, Marbled and Spotted Wood Quail (heard only), Garden Emerald, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Fiery-billed Aracari, Pale-breasted Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, White-winged Becard, Rufous-breasted Wren, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, White-throated Robin (very common), Rufous-capped Warbler, many tanagers, and Black-headed Brush-Finch. On previous trips I easily found Masked Yellowthroat near the San Joaquin Marsh, and Blue-crowned Manakins about 1/2 K down the River Trail.
Tuesday - Friday, April 23-26.
We tore ourselves away from the Wilson Garden, and headed down the road to Ciudad Neilly. I had remembered the road as a steep, rough gravel road, but it has been newly paved and is now a very quick and easy way down to the Pan American Highway. We continued on via gravel roads to Tiskita Lodge, located at Punta Banco south of Golfito, right on the Pacific Coast. This fascinating place is an experimental fruit farm with a half dozen comfortable cabinas and hundreds of acres of surrounding virgin forest. We spent most of our time in family mode and didn't really do too much birding in the forest, but it seemed very promising. Note that despite Tiskita's Southern Pacific location, it is slightly drier than Golfito, and the bird mix may be a little different. The staff is friendly and informative, the cabinas extremely comfortable, the fruit always available and very tasty. Most people fly in, but driving in was actually rather pleasant. The road was bumpy, but not terrible. Perhaps that would be different in the wet season.
The grounds are very birdy, with good numbers of typical open country and edge birds, as well as North American migrants. The fruit attracts both birds and monkeys. A very cooperative group of Squirrel Monkeys passed through daily. We also heard Howlers and saw White-faced Capuchins, complete with attendant Grey-headed Tanagers. Just as reported by Bruce Barrett (ABA #N-62), we had two cute little White-lined Sac-winged Bats roosting under the eves of our porch. This was also a good place for frogs, with at least two Dendrobates species easily seen, and lots of Iguanas (both Green and Black) and Basilisk lizards. Golden-naped and Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Black-hooded Antshrike and Riverside Wren are all abundant on the grounds. They practically fly into your cabin at all hours of the day.
Around the grounds and on the few trails we walked we found other species, including Double-toothed Kite (near the orchard), Gray Hawk, Spectacled owl (heard only), Plain-capped Starthroat, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Streaked and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin (in the forest just past the old silted-in dam), a good array of tanagers and Thick-billed Seed-Finch (in the orchard). Leigh saw a Mangrove Cuckoo near our cabina. Walking the forest trails at the right time of day (early!) would undoubtedly produce a long list of birds, including some of the Southwestern specialties that I didn't see, such as Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager.
We left in the morning and had an uneventful drive to the Hotel del Sur in San Isidro. There is one passport control checkpoint just south of Palmar Norte, and another at El Brujo that appears to shut down during the middle of the day. The Pan American Highway was in very good condition all the way, except for the previously mentioned bad spot between Paso Real and San Isidro.
The Hotel del Sur is adequate, but not without problems. We stayed in the fan-cooled cabinas in the back of the property. Since there was a very loud live band and dance party late that night (a Friday) it was a good thing. I recommend eating in town, as the hotel food was nothing memorable. On the grounds there were some birds, most quite familiar after two weeks in Costa Rica, but which would have been pretty exciting if this was a first stop. Two highlights for me were Plain-capped Starthroat and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird. This must be one of the easiest places in Costa Rica to find the latter bird. The swimming pool was wonderful!
Saturday, April 27.
Back over the Cerro in a deep mist, which hung on well down the north side into Cartago. A brief stop at Lankaster Garden in mid-afternoon produced few noteworthy birds, but made for a pleasant walk. In the afternoon we pulled into the Posada de la Montaña, which was just as comfortable as before. The next morning we departed early for the airport and our return flight. Alas, another wonderful trip to this great country was over. On the combined trip we identified 380 bird species (34 heard only), of which 92 were lifers and another 41 new for me in Costa Rica. I can't wait to go back!
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