by Peter Browne
I planned a trip to Mexico in December 1998 and cancelled it at the beginning of the month since I could not rent a car because of my age (72). Of course, I was disappointed, and had given up hope of birding in the south in the near future. Then, on 10 December I read a message on the ornitho-qc chat line to the effect that Pierre Beaule had just lost his companion through illness for a birding trip to Costa Rica on 12 December and that he was seeking a replacement.
The trip consisted of flights between Montreal and San José, transfers by bus to and seven nights stay at Punta Leona Hotel. This is located on the Pacific coast about 70 km SSW of San José. At first I was dubious about the birding value of such a trip to a resort but Pierre, who had been studying the situation for some time, assured me that the hotel is located in a big forested reserve, and the well known Carara Biological Reserve is close by. Besides, he planned to take day trips to other birding hotspots. On the basis of this and, access to WWW literature about the hotel, I decided to go and did not regret it.
This report describes what I saw but not all of Pierre's observations as we were often not together. It was the first time in Costa Rica for both of us, though I had been in neighbouring countries (Nicaragua, Guyana, Venezuela) 13-16 years previously. Many of the birds seen I had encountered on these trips but had largely forgotten their characteristics. I identified a total of 120 species - perhaps not great for a week in Costa Rica, but we were doing our own spotting, without a guide.
We arrived at the hotel in the dark on Saturday 10 December but it was obvious during the last few km that we were in a heavily forested area. Our room was in one bungalow of a series right on the forest edge. We were out before 6 a.m. the next day, just as the dawn was breaking, and immediately had our first challenge, Rufous-naped Wrens, one of which was around a security light looking for insects, and others were singing strongly. Pierre, who had been studying "A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica" (GBCR) by Stiles, Skutch, and Gardner for weeks, immediately recognized it. We walked along the forested road towards the hotel exit and next came across Rufous-tailed Hummingbird perched high on a dead branch and singing. Then a Great Kiskadee calling and a male Northern Oriole in the trees. These were common, and it was great to catch up again with birds we had been watching a few months before in Canada. Then, in quick succession, White-tipped Dove, Clay-colored Robin, Great-tailed Grackles, Inca Doves, Band-rumped Swifts, spectacular Pale-billed Woodpecker, and several Summer Tanagers. The latter was a lifer for me and recalled my vain attempt to find one in Ontario a few winters previously - several hours drive through the snow to a feeder where it had been reported, but it did not show up!
Pierre left me for a while to fetch his spotting scope from the room as he was seeing birds high up in trees which he could not identify with binoculars. While he was away I heard a deep harsh "kwark" call and saw two large long-tailed birds flying over the trees. At first I did not realize they were parrots because of the relatively slow wing beats, but then saw the gaudy red and yellow wings and had my first Scarlet Macaws. We had wondered at the big drum-shaped structures high in some of the hotel trees and found out that these are nest boxes for the Scarlet Macaws, which are quite common in the area, especially in Carara BR. While Pierre was still away I heard explosive "cheeo" calls and saw a party of Brown Jays moving through the trees. The bright yellow eye ring and bills on some of these birds had me stumped for a while as they are not shown in the illustration in GBCR, though of course mentioned in the text. The next bird I did remember from my previous trips: Blue-gray Tanager.
With Pierre back we notched them up: Fiery-billed Aracari, Riverside Wren, Yellow Warbler, Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, Black-hooded Antshrike, Bay-headed Tanager, Northern Bentbill, Tennessee Warbler, Long-tailed Hermit, Stub-billed Spadebill, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Dot-winged Antwren, Social Flycatcher, and Grove-billed Ani. For me, 14 lifers out of 29 species in the morning. That proportion of 50% lifers among species seen was what I maintained for the whole week.
During the afternoon we went by bus to Jaco, about 10 km to the south. Pierre was keen on visiting some other areas in Costa Rica and wanted to pick up a rental car for the following day ($45 US for a Toyota Tercel). On the way we saw Blue-black Grassquit and Ringed Kingfisher. Brown Pelicans were numerous on the ocean and Magnificent Frigatebirds frequent overhead, looking so incongruous over the coastal forest, soaring with Turkey and Black Vultures. That evening I heard a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl calling in the hotel grounds and also heard it other evenings. It approached in response to a taped call, but never came within sight.
The next morning we left at 03.30 for Braulio Carrillo National Park. There was a Common Pauraque at the Hotel gate. Traversing San José was a trial and navigator (me) got us lost there, but eventually a taxi driver led us out to the autopista to the north. Our principal source of information for the road and the Park was "A Birders Guide to Costa Rica" by Keith Taylor, 1990 revision. The route map for getting through San José is not easy to follow and the description of birding spots in the Park is a bit out of date. However, we stopped several times including at both end of the tunnel and at the park headquarters about 15 km north of the tunnel. Birds seen included Common Bush-Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Blue-and-white Swallow, Wilson's Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Green-crowned Brilliant, Paltry Tyrannulet, Spotted Woodcreeper, Royal Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird, Thrushlike Manakin, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Lattice-tailed Trogon, and Tawny-crested Tanager. On the way back we saw Rock Doves in San José, a White-winged Dove, Cattle Egrets, and Grove-billed Anis by the road, and, at the bridge over the Tarcoles River, Black-necked Stilts, Barn Swallows, Great Egret, Scarlet Macaw, Northern Jacana, Great Blue Heron, and Brown Pelicans.
The driving hassles from this trip, convinced me that I would do best to stay around the hotel area for the rest of the week, especially as most other national parks were further away than the one we had just visited so would require even more tiring driving. On Tuesday I walked some of the trails in the Punta Leona forest. New birds were Slaty-tailed Trogon, Long-billed Starthroat, Orange-billed Sparrow, Black-throated Trogon, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Crested Guan, Striped Woodhaunter, Streaked Flycatcher, Golden-masked Tanager, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Laughing Falcon, Hoffman's Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, Rose-throated Becard, and Pale-billed Woodpecker. A flight of 10 Wood-Storks went high overhead and, soaring with the other vultures was a King Vulture. On the beach in the evening was a Whimbrel.
On Wednesday Pierre and I went to the Carara Biological Reserve. This is easy to get to by bus from the hotel. Buses pass the hotel gate approximately every hour starting at 06.30, and the cost is about 250 colones ($1 US). You have to be prepared to stand as the buses are often crowded, but people are accommodating, even making room for Pierre's large scope and tripod!. Carara has a double loop trail at the Reserve Headquarters and another trail about 2 km north of the HQ, not far from the Tarcoles River. This second trail was closed because of flooding and mud as a result of Hurricane Mitch. However, the HQ trail was open. It is apparently only 2.4 km long (according to Taylor) but took us almost 7 hrs. to circumnavigate! Right at the entrance were Masked Tityra, Hoffman's Woodpecker, and Slaty-tailed Trogon. After a few hundred metres we were delighted to see a large bird walking in front of us across the trail: a Great Tinamou. We had a good view of it on the forest floor and were surprised how tame it seemed. For the next several hours we saw lots: Northern Orioles, Long-tailed Hermit, Scarlet Macaws, Buff-throated Foliage Gleaner, Riverside Wren, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Tennessee Warbler, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Dot-winged Antwrens, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-shouldered Tanager, Black-hooded Antshrike, Plain Xenops, and Rufous-winged Woodpecker. As we were leaving a Short-tailed Hawk flew over. On the trail we met some other parties of birders, one led by the guide from Tarcol Lodge. They told us of seeing a Blue-crowned Motmot at the entrance to the trail and a Turquoise-browed Motmot from the restaurant at Tarcoles Bridge, but we saw no motmots at all though we looked for them carefully at these places and others. Can anyone advise me on the technique for spotting motmots?
We walked to Tarcoles Bridge from the Reserve (about 3 km) and saw Barred Antshrike, Northern Jacanas, Northern Waterthrush, Green Kingfisher, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Mangrove and Barn Swallows, Yellow-headed Caracara, Black-necked Stilts, Great and Snowy Egrets, Hoffman's Woodpecker, Spotted Sandpiper running near the alligators, a Ruddy Ground-Dove, a Bare-throated Tiger Bittern, Green-backed and Little Blue Herons.
The following day Thursday was a disaster for me as I got sick, presumably from exhaustion from trying to keep up with a 30-year old for the previous four days! I wasted a whole day and identified only one new bird, the Boat-billed Flycatcher. Furthermore, I went to the hospital at Puntarenas by taxi but was not in a state to explore that good birding area at all. Pierre went to Tarcoles and had several interesting finds.
On Friday Pierre joined a party planning to visit the Volcan Poás. They drove most of the way in rain and were not able to approach the volcano when they reached the end of the road because of thick cloud. Indeed, they were told that no-one had been able to get up there for the last 30 days because of bad weather conditions! Such information is hard to come by in Costa Rica when you are arranging a trip without a guide. To make it worse, Pierre was the only birder in the party and driving took so long that he had no time for birding except for a few minutes from the restaurant at the end of the road.
I felt better and spent the morning at Carara and the afternoon around the hotel Punta Leona. Birds seen included Crested Caracara, Mealy Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Streaked Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Scarlet Macaw, Baird's Trogon, Black-hooded Antshrike, Spot-winged Antwren, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Riverside Wren building a nest, Chestnut-backed Antbird, King Vulture ( an immature soaring with Black and Turkey Vultures), Northern and Southern Rough-winged Swallows, Clay-colored Robin and Grove-billed Ani.
Saturday 19 December was our last day. We again explored the Punta Leona hotel grounds and a road just outside. We had some of our best birding right there: Hoffman's Woodpecker, White-crowned Parrot, Red-billed Pigeon, Yellow-headed Caracara, Brown Jay, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, Great Kiskadee, Red-mandibled Toucan, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Northern Oriole, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Summer Tanager, Tennessee Warblers, Roadside Hawk, Black Swifts, Panama Flycatcher, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Barred Antshrike, Squirrel Cuckoo, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Rose-throated Becard, Crested Caracara, Masked Tityra, Inca Dove, Fiery-billed Aracari, Buff-throated Saltator, Dot-winged Antwren, and House Wren. Birding time was extended as we were told, just before embarking on the bus to the airport, that the flight back to Montreal was delayed a few hours. I did not find much new but Pierre located a Three-wattled Bellbird near the hotel. Apparently they do come down to the lowlands of Costa Rica in the latter months of the year. Pierre arrived at the bus with the news just as we were due to leave and I tried to persuade the driver to drive round to where it was on the way out, but to no avail. I guess that was the best (missed) bird of the trip.
This trip convinced me that Punta Leona Hotel is an excellent birding base and suitable for a mixed party of both birders and non-birders. The beaches are superb and the food and accommodation are fine. The rooms are air-conditioned. They have a refrigerator for people doing self-catering and there is a small grocery store at the hotel. Cost of a package (air fare, transfers, accommodation) is reasonable. There are very many birds right within the hotel grounds and a good low cost external bus transportation system. Cars can be rented without prior reservations within 15 km. I'll probably be back.