by Wayland B. Augur
Earlier this month I headed down to Costa Rica for a Backgammon tournament and to spend a few days birdwatching and enjoying the country. I didn't do a full-blown birding trip because I wanted to spend some time being a tourist and relaxing prior to the tournament, and I figure I can focus more on birding on a future trip, now that I know the country a little. Prior to going, I read the Moon Publications travel book, which stood me in good stead during my stay, especially while I was looking for "tourist" things to do San Jose (and trying to remember out who gets tips and who doesn't!). I had booked a 4-day, 3-night trip to the Chachagua Rainforest Hotel through my travel agent so that everything would be taken care of. I like to do that sometimes when I haven't been to a country before, so that I can get a feel for the place without needing to worry about little things like where I'm staying and what I'm eating. I also find it a bit nicer to do booked tours when I'm travelling alone.
I arrived in San Jose on Saturday night, a bit peaked from all the time on airplanes (and sitting around airports). The tour company met me at the airport to drive me to the Britannia hotel in San Jose where I spent my first evening. The rooms were nice, the food acceptable; but nothing really special. Sunday morning I went to check out the Gold museum (impressive if you like gold) and to wander around town a bit. I didn't take my binoculars because I was a bit worried about losing them (San Jose has a bit of a reputation for some street crime). Next time I'll take some mini's for birding around town - there were some parrots and other birds in the parks that might have been worth a look. One danger I considered is that when you're birding, you're so focused that you might not notice something like someone sizing you up to see what you're carryin this can unfortunately be a problem in any city, but I doubt it would be a problem in San Jose if one used a little common sense (sorry about the mixed tenses/persons in that sentence...). Even without my bins, was able to pick up Rock Dove and Great-Tailed Grackle (oh, boy!).
At noon I met the tour company at my hotel and we set off for Chachagua with a brief stop at Sarchi, a town known for crafts such as the classic Costa Rican oxcart. There picked up a few gifts for folks back in the states, the prices were quite reasonable. The tour guide, Tirza, knew I was a birder, and she knew a fair number of the local species (especially the pretty ones that the tourists like!) and our driver was more than willing to keep his eyes open and stop when he saw something. We stopped along the way for Montezuma Orependola and a tree with 6 Keel-Billed Toucans - very nice! We arriv at the hotel and I immediately took a hike up a hill past some horse pastures, where I picked up Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Golden-headed Tanager, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Collared Aracari, and Black-Cheeked Woodpecker, among others. The light was starting to go, so I wandered back down the hill; I noted some largish Woodcreepers working a tree but the light was too poor to ID them.
Dinner (and all other meals) at the hotel was quite nice, in an open-air structure so that you can see the wildlife, etc. The rooms, also, were spacious and nice, and the showers all had windows (mirrored on the outside so that those of us wandering around outside with binoculars wouldn't find the views too "interesting") so that you could enjoy the view while showering! Apparently the birds sometimes see their reflections and put on a show for the showering guests; I wasn't that fortunate. The next morning I checked around the rooms, where some of the best birding seem to be. There I picked up Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (quite common), Little Hermit, Violet-Headed Hummingbird, Blue-Gray Tanager, Green and Shining Honeycreepers, and Scarlet-Thighed Dracnis. There was also a vexing Kiskadee-type flycatcher which resembled the picture of the White-ringed Flycatcher, but I'm not sure - there are a few that look like that, and the pictures in the Stiles & Skutch gave me a bit of trouble (a local birder lat told me that a lot of guides use the Panama book for the plates, and the S&S for the descriptions!). At breakfast, they put some fruit on a fence to draw in a few of the birds for guests to see; this brought in a Black-Cheeked Woodpecker and Collared Aracaris, but nothi new.
There were some White-Crowned Parrots nearby, though. (I did see other Parrot species during the trip, but couldn't ID them - next time I'll take the scope!). After breakfast we took a hike through the rainforest, where Tirza went over local ecology and other subjects. It turns out that Chachagua used to be a cattle ranch, which has been converted to ecotourism; and a lot of the forest is just growing back, which makes for some interesting birding habitats. At the edge of the forest we got a good look at a Slaty-Tailed Trogon, and Tirza saw a Squirrel Cuckoo just as it flew into the trees (rats!). In the rainforest we didn't see many birds - There was a wren that we couldn't call out, but not much else. The hike was fascinating and worthwhile, though, and it was fascinating learning about the forest and all the different life there. If one tires of birding in Costa Rica, or the birding's just slow, the bug-watching is always guaranteed to be excellent!
On the way out of the rainforest we saw several Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Groove-billed Anis, and the ubiquitous Clay-colored Robin (their national bird!), and soaring above were several Swallow-tailed Kites. After lunch I went a little way into the fore near the rooms, and got a look at a bird that I believe was a Rufous Piha, although it had some prominent rictal bristles not shown in the book. There was also another unidentified Woodcreeper. I took another small hike to a nearby waterfall, but unfortunately a pet dog from the hotel followed me; the dog insisted on chasing whatever I was most interested in, so eventually I just stopped birding because it was disturbing the wildlife too much.
I did get good looks at Sulphur-Rumped Flycatchers and Scarlet-Rumped Caciques, though. In the afternoon we took a trip to nearby Arenal Volcano, the most active volcano in Costa Rica. The weather cleared obligingly (it was beautiful the whole time I was there - "Rainy Season" indeed!) and we got great views of several eruptions. Quite nice! The rest of the tour group at that point was from Spain (only one of them spoke English) Tirza had the driver take them hiking, while she and I birded the stream near the volcano. The birding there was quite good, and we picked up several good species, including Crimson-collared Tanager, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, White-throated Crake, and Common Tody-Flycatcher. Tirza also saw a Guan, but it was gone by the time I looked (a Gone Guan?).
The light began to fail, and the mosquitoes began to bite, so we walked back downstream to a commercial hot spring where I soaked for a few minutes, then talked birds for a while with another tour guide who was quite knowledgeable. That evening the Spanish group took me in and invited me to dine with them, it was quite enjoyable even with the minor communication barrier! (I do have a bit of Spanish, but discussions of philosophy in the Catalan language are a bit beyond me...). The next day we hopped in the van and headed to Cano Negro, a fascinating river preserve (apparently it's more of a wetland in the dry season). At a gas stop I added Blue-black Grassquit and House Sparrow (what a relief!). Along the way we also picked up Barred Forest-falcon, White-collared Seedeater, a Crested Caracara feasting on roadkill with some vultures, and Northern Jacana. In the small town near Cano Negro I watched a Mariachus flycatcher for a few minutes, but for me they can sometimes be as vexi as Empidomax (especially when I'm birding alone).
At Cano Negro itself the birding was quite good; birds seen there included Snail Kite, Hook-billed Kite, probable Gray-headed Kite (although the bird we saw only showed 1 set of bars on the tail, and the book shows 3, all the other features matched perfectly), Amazon and Ringed Kingfisher, Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, Muscovy Ducks, Great Potoo, Mangrove Swallow, Sungrebe, and a too-quick glimpse of a Tiger-heron. There was also a Black-headed Trogon which I couldn't take because my tail-on view was too poor. Other interesting wildlife seen on the boat trip included Howler Monkeys and Iguanas. The next morning I went and birded a small lake at Chachagua; I picked up several more species there including Purple Gallinule, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, and Black-striped Sparrow. There were also several dark swifts with pale rumps working the lake, but the light was poor enough that I couldn't ID them. Swifts can be a bit tough for me the best of times! There were swallows there which I believe were one of the rough-winged species, but again the overcast conditions prevented a positive ID. (I try to err on the side of caution when dealing with possible life birds; even doing that, I sometimes mis-id them).
Unfortunately it was then time to leave, and go back to San Jose for my tourname (I actually resented it a bit, but it was ostensibly my reason for going!). I check out a few more museums in San Jose, including the Serpentario (where you can get good close looks at many of the local poisonous beasties). The tournament itself was at the Melia Cariari resort, a typical golf/tennis resort. Expensive and not exciting, but there were some excellent, inexpensive restaurants nearby. I did a bit of birding on the go course there and picked up Hoffman's Woodpecker, and watched a quite amusing Ringed Kingfisher which had caught a fish a little too big to swallow. It would eat it until just the tail was coming out it's mouth, then have to bring it back up again... it did this 3-4 times before it flew off with fish in tow.
Luckily, my luck in the tournament was quite poor - I got knocked out the1st day. This gave me the opportunity to take a day trip to the Rain Forest Ariel Tram, which provides a fascinating look at the different levels of the rainforest. The birding there wasn't great, but the guide did point out a hummer to me "That's a good one!", he said - It was a bit unclear to me what the specific markings I should be looking for, and I to him so... he then said "Well, it's an immature female...". After I stopped laughing, found out that he'd seen the birds nesting, and that's how he knew what the bird was! (Makes sense to me...). I did manage to pick up White-collared Swift, though, and a Crowned Woodnymph at a feeder. Gorgeous! All in all, an excellent trip.
Next time I'll probably bird a bit more seriously and try to go to more habitats, because that's how you pick up the big numbers. I'll also take my scope, for some of the far-off bird Ids and the tough flycatchers. I'll pick up the Panama book as recommended by the bird guide, and I may go so far as to just book a bird guide for the week. There's also a company that was started by the fellow who wrote a book on where to find birds in Costa Rica (Tirza loaned me her autographed copy, it appeared quite useful) that I may check into.
Birds seen (and identified!):
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis
Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Great Egret Ardea alba
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Green Heron Butorides virescens
Wood Stork Mycteria americana
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Gray-headed Kite Leptodon cayanensis
Hook-billed Kite Chondrohierax uncinatus
Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus
Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis
Crested Caracara Caracara plancus
Barred Forest-Falcon Micrastur ruficollis
White-throated Crake Laterallus albigularis
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Sungrebe Heliornis fulica
Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa
Rock Dove Columba livia
Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti
White-crowned Parrot Pionus senilis
Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris
Great Potoo Nyctibius grandis
White-collared Swift Streptoprocne zonaris
Little Hermit Phaethornis longuemareus
Violet-headed Hummingbird Klais guimeti
Violet-crowned Woodnymph Thalurania colombica
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl
Slaty-tailed Trogon Trogon massena
Ringed Kingfisher Ceryle torquata
Amazon Kingfisher Chloroceryle amazona
Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus
Keel-billed Toucan Ramphastos sulfuratus
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Ramphastos swainsonii
Black-cheeked Woodpecker Melanerpes pucherani
Hoffmann's Woodpecker Melanerpes hoffmannii
Streak-headed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes souleyetii
Rufous Piha Lipaugus unirufus
Purple-throated Fruitcrow Querula purpurata
Common Tody-Flycatcher Todirostrum cinereum
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher Myiobius barbatus Tropical
Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher Myiodynastes luteiventris
Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus
Black-crowned Tityra Tityra inquisitor
Clay-colored Robin Turdus grayi
House Wren Troglodytes aedon
Mangrove Swallow Tachycineta albilinea
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat Geothlypis poliocephala
Black-striped Sparrow Arremonops conirostris
Crimson-collared Tanager Ramphocelus sanguinolentus
Blue-gray Tanager Thraupis episcopus
Golden-hooded Tanager Tangara larvata
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis Dacnis venusta
Green Honeycreeper Chlorophanes spiza
Shining Honeycreeper Cyanerpes lucidus
Blue-black Grassquit Volatinia jacarina
Variable Seedeater Sporophila americana
White-collared Seedeater Sporophila torqueola
Grayish Saltator Saltator coerulescens
Montezuma Oropendola Gymnostinops montezuma
Scarlet-rumped Cacique Cacicus microrhynchus
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus
Wayland B. Augur
Chico, CA, USA