by Gordon Gover
We arrived in San Jose to find our friend and guide for the next five days of this impulse birding blitz of Costa Rica, Alex Villegas, waiting for us with his newly acquired company car, complete with stylized blue-crowned motmot logo. As I said to Nancy on the runway a few minutes earlier, "It feels like coming home".
Unbelievably, it took us over half an hour to see our first bird of the trip. And then it happened. ROCK DOVE. Alright, trip bird! OK, so its not the most auspicious start, but a start it was. It can only get better!
We continued the ride, enjoying our conversation with Alex and scanning for birds. Definitely the best bird seen on the ride to the OTS was the pair of collared aracaris (first lifebird!) seen flying across the road by Gordon and Alex. Nancy was victimized by being in the back seat in this case but later got good looks at this species at la Selva.
The drive was punctuated by rapidly changing weather with bright sunshine interspersed with light mist and sporadic heavy downpours.
We arrived at the la Selva OTS at about 4 pm and decided that the only reasonable course of action was to bird until dark and then go to our hotel. We found the gatehouse unattended and so proceeded to the main gate where we parked beside the road and proceeded to look for birds.
After a discreet inquiry about bathroom facilities, Alex sent us down a path where we were greeted by the only mosquitoes we encountered at La Selva. We can only assume that they were giving Alex some sort of kickback for sending birders to their lair. Alex denies this.
Gray-headed Chachalaca were playing about in the trees. Noisy parrots were feeding and flying in pairs (that's how we can tell they're "pair-ots.") There were Mealy Parrots, Red-lored Parrots, Brown-hooded Parrots, White-crowned Parrots, Olive-throated Parakeets and Orange-chinned Parakeets. A showy Squirrel Cuckoo demanded a look. It was nice to see a bird that was an old friend from our last trip. We had really enjoyed the Squirrel Cuckoos last January.
The mosquito eradication squad was swirling about. Team members included lesser swallow-tailed swift, gray-rumped swift, barn swallow, and northern rough-winged swallow. The lesser swallow-tailed swift would turn out to be a significant entry on the trip list. It was the only bird of the trip that Alex never saw or heard. He did allow the identification, though, by pointing out that the greater swallow-tailed swift should be included in the field guide, in his opinion, only as an accidental.
Tanagers added bright color to the show. Old friends from the U.S, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers were there. Red-throated Ant-tanager was a welcome addition to the list, but the almost shockingly bright rump patch of the Passerini's tanager (recently split from scarlet-rumped tanager) was a real eye popper.
In an hour and 15 minutes we racked up a quick 62 birds including great looks at Montezuma's oropendola making it's otherworldly song with tail cocked high, both caciques, clay-colored robin, black-throated wren, long-tailed tyrant, cinnamon becard, and black-cheeked woodpecker. Nancy liked the latter as it appears on the cover of Alexander Skutch's "A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm".
A very satisfying start. No real jaw-droppers in terms of rareness, but definitely worth eating late. As we birded the road near the gate, it seemed Alex knew everyone leaving the station for the day and introduced us to several of the la Selva guides as they bicycled home.
We retired to our hotel, cleaned up, and caught a late dinner while making plans for the next five days.
Alex and Gordon tried a little owling at the edge of Puerto Viejo, but without success. A heavy rainstorm moved through after we returned to our rooMs. "Rain in the rain forest" as Alex likes to say.
Gordon awoke at 3:00 am feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. He just couldn't get back to sleep thinking about the feathered treasures which awaited us at dawn.
The morning dawned bright with the promise of untold lifebirds and la Selva lived up to its reputation. We were at the gate by 05:45. While we ate breakfast out of the cooler at the entrance gate, Nancy and Alex searched for the laughing falcon which was calling persistently. Gordon decided to concentrate on nourishment and look when the bird was located. This strategy paid off as the bird was found on an exposed perch just as he finished breakfast. Great look in the scope, what a stunning bird. We watched him for some time until we had all had good looks at him doing his laugh.
Alex and Gordon hunted down a yellow tyrannulet while Nancy made a bathroom run at the station. We were prepared to point the bird out when she rejoined us.
Nancy and Gordon amused themselves by watching several wheelbarrow- pushing workers crossing the suspension footbridge and whistling "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go". We whistled it, that is.
We also scored a double of the Woody Woodpecker types before leaving the parking lot - lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers. Crossing the bridge we found a small flock of dusky-faced tanagers and a great tinamou on the opposite riverbank. Good stuff.
In the morning, we got some nice birds on the trails, including a black-faced antthrush that Alex called in, a slaty-tailed trogon, and white-breasted wood-wren.
One bird seemed to stump Alex for a time, the first time I'd seen him hesitate so long on a call. It was a medium-sized bird with a weird chocolate-brown and white mottled plumage. It played hide-and-seek right below us as we stood on one of the many footbridges on the trails. Eventually he identified it as a female white-shouldered tanager going into adult plumage.
We also had great looks, our best ever, at golden-winged warbler. Then another bird made Alex hesitate and he said "I think maybe you know this bird better than me, Gordon". Well, having the Costa Rican endemics eliminated from the playing field, I immediately envisioned myself at Higbee Beach in Cape May, and said "Bay-breasted warbler". A brief look at the field guide and Alex concurred. That felt pretty good. As we walked out, my limited Spanish told me that he was describing the bird to other guides and that everybody agreed. I guess this is a pretty good bird at la Selva.
We watched a family group of black-faced grosbeaks eating in the open trees near the research facility and then spent a good long time observing shining honeycreepers and scarlet-thighed dacnises drinking water which had accumulated in the top of a palm tree during last night's storm.
We were haunted by the nearby cry of a broad-billed motmot. Unfortunately, this bird would be relegated to the "heard only" list. Then as we watched a mixed flock including collared aracaris, a variety of woodcreepers, and parrots, Alex suddenly snapped to attention. By this time, we could tell when something good was nearby by watching Alex. This was one of those times.
The Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant was a well earned magic moment. Alex heard its calls high in the canopy, and after a time began to suspect that there was a nest. It is not a showy bird, in fact it's the smallest passerine in Costa Rica, but Nancy liked it because it is such a little guy with a big, intimidating name. We had to hold our heads all the way back to watch for it. Nancy vows to work on developing her sternocleidomastoid muscles to relieve future "Canopy neck." Alex mimicked the Tyrant, the Tyrant answered. For twenty minutes our three heads tilted back with eyes aimed almost straight up to scan naked eye for a tiny flash of olive that would give it away. Then Alex announced "I think there's a nest". This seemed to be based simply on the pattern of where the calls were emanating from. Then he located the nest, a tiny hanging affair straight overhead. He put the scope on a small branch in front of the nest and said, "Look, the bird will appear in the scope." About 10 seconds later, it did!! and proceeded to eat a bug half the size of its head.
"Patience and luck," says Alex, "that's how you see in the jungle. Patience and luck." After forty minutes, patience gave way to luck. We were all grateful that our leisurely look was through the Swarovski scope's angled eyepiece. Almost every bird in La Selva this day was more impressive on looks alone, but our moment considering a harried parent wolfing down a snack measured up well against everything else that we saw.
On returning to the visitor center for lunch, we added a very beautiful bird to our growing list - green honeycreeper. There were probably six or seven females feeding at eye level in the low trees just outside the dining room. When we found a male, it was most satisfying. What a shocking shade of green to go with that black hood! A few minutes before noon Gordon decreed, "We have to get one more lifebird before lunch". Before the echo of the words could fade, a black-headed saltator called and posed a few feet away. Lunchtime!
The lunchroom brought back memories of our stay in the OTS station at Palo Verde last January. One menu per meal, serve yourself, unlimited cookies in a Tupperware container, and lots of American college students at nearby tables taking a break from their field projects.
After lunch, Orlando had asked if he could borrow Alex for a while to plan their Christmas count. Nancy was still suffering a touch of jet lag, so she napped in the dining area and dreamed of college students playing loud music. Gordon was relaxing inside too when Alex yelled "Migrating hawks". Well, not entirely right. There was an absolute river of birds passing at the rate of 100 birds per minute for about the next 30 minutes when their flight path finally drifted slowly out of sight.
Gordon estimates the composition of the flight to have been approximately:
Turkey vultures 70% Swainson's hawks 25% Black vultures 5%
The la Selva hawk watching team also detected 3 Northern harriers sprinkled in. Not great variety but very impressive nonetheless. We even managed to rouse Nancy from her reverie for a look.
The Christmas count planning session seemed like any such session, given Gordon's limited understanding of Spanish, with lots of talk about specific, presumably hard-to-get birds. Orlando and Joel admitted that Alex's Monteverde count always surpasses the la Selva count, with last year's score being 343 to 333. While they planned, Joel suddenly jumped up to point out a plain-colored tanager in the distant cecropia trees. Lifebird! This would be the only one we saw for the trip. Muchos gracias, Joel.
After lunch we were rewarded with good looks at a white-collared manakin which was located by following the loud wing-snaps. Then we followed the bird to a lek where two of them were "dancing", snapping their wings and flying three or four feet away time after time in rapid succession. Nancy dubbed them "popcorn birds". An apt name.
Then we heard a plaintive cry way in the distance. Gordon asked what it was. "Ocellated antbird" was the answer. After the demonstration with the black-faced antthrush this morning Gordon joked "Call him over".
So Alex mimicked the call. And the sound came closer. Alex called again, and the bird came closer, and so it continued until the bird was clearly very close and Alex said "Get ready. It's right there", indicating a little window in the foliage. We could see the movement, but before we could get a good look, Alex called again. And the bird launched itself straight at our heads!
The bird was literally an arm's length from our heads when it veered hard to the right, crossed the footpath, and alit to reveal that it possessed a spider with an abdomen the size of a golfball in its beak. It then proceeded to scold us while downing its tasty snack. Now what were we to do with all this adrenaline?
"Fruitcrows," says Alex. He hears them but doesn't see them. Once again, we'll have to work to see the bird. Nancy checks the colored plate in Skutch. Good. Nothing nondescript about these guys. There are several fruitcrows flying overhead, always over the canopy, always out of view. We can hear the calls. Alex is trying to anticipate their movement so we might catch a look as they pass over an opening in the canopy. After half an hour of listening and trotting to promising patches of sky, Alex wants to get out in the open.
"Let's try down here." He leads us down a narrow side path that ends in a pile of small branches and dead vegetation. Apparently a dumping path used by the wheelbarrow-wielding clean up crew. Standing on the mulch, we are still in the forest, but at the edge of a clearing. Several hundred feet into the clearing is a large, dark, leafless tree. In the tree are three purple-throated fruitcrows. The throats look scarlet, not the purple color in the book. Alex assures us that the color is fine. It just changes depending on the lighting. Our fruitcrows ar backlit by strong sunlight. "You have good luck," says Alex. "This is an easy bird to miss."
As we left the park, we stopped to bird the fields near the gate. Nancy found a black-cowled oriole, very pretty. A mourning warbler gave us a too-quick look, the little skulker. When we returned to the road, Alex spotted a slaty-backed forest falcon perched nearby. It was a rear view, but at least he turned his head to show us his white neck. Then we finished off the day by watching short-tailed nighthawks and common pauraques hunting. The pauraques were particularly fun to watch as they hunted like gigantic flycatchers from their spots just next to the road, flying up with their white wing-patches flashing and returning to their starting points. They were very nonchalant about our presence.
We arose bright and early, well, actually dark and early the next morning as we wanted to be at Virgen del Socorro for dawn. We were a little tardy, but it didn't seem to hurt the birding at all. We had breakfast out of the cooler on the road (should I call it a road?) at our birding site.
We got off to a fast start with a female green thorntail, male white-necked jacobin, and a male black-crested coquette perched for a scope shot. Gorgeous! We later saw two black-crested coquette males fighting.
We followed up with a GREAT look at Zeledon's tyrannulet. Alex was very excited at this. Clearly this bird is not accustomed to giving up so easily, but this guy just kept coming closer and closer until we had to drop our binoculars because he was too close to focus.
Alex called up another of the antbird family, this time it was an angry immaculate antbird. Nancy watched this bird scolding us for quite a long time. He sure was mad! A collared trogon perched in typical trogon style for good looks. A white-ruffed manakin gave a quick but definitive look. This is like picking cherries.
Then Alex got a teed-up black-headed tody-flycatcher in the scope. He said it was the best look he ever had at this bird. Gordon goes one step farther and called this the best look at ANY bird for the trip. It filled the field and was posed beautifully. Oh, to have photographic talent when something like this happens.
We continued racking up stunning birds with the tanagers well represented. Bay-headed, emerald, silver-throated, black-and-yellow, and crimson-collared all were marked "Present".
Our friends, the warblers were also very well represented here on this morning with Blackburnian, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, Tennessee, golden-winged, yellow, Wilson's, and both waterthrushes accounted for. Their tropical cousins were also here with tropical parula, slate-throted redstart, gray-crowned yellowthroat seen.
Alex pulled a tufted flycatcher out from the other side of the valley. This was a bird that Nancy missed by being second at the scope, but another came close for good looks a short time later.
A smoky brown woodpecker was a good find, though Gordon had trouble getting on this one and had to list this bird as a "probably seen". That's one to come back for!
All the time we were finding these great birds, we were serenaded by the haunting song of the nightingale wren. Try as we might, this skulker eluded our sight and went down as a "heard bird".
We continued down to the river and picked up torrent tyrannulet and American dipper. This bird is considered a different race than its North American counterpart. It was a little tricky finding him from our perch on the bridge as he dove in and out of the river, but we tracked the blighter down.
On the walk back up to the car, we found what may have been the bird of the trip. Alex told us that when Phoebe Snetsinger (world best lister at 8400+) visited Monteverde earlier this year, she met with him to inquire about the best places to find the two birds from the area that she had not yet seen: buff-breasted wood-quail and sooty-faced finch. He didn't hear whether she had found her target birds, but on the walk up, Alex suddenly heard a sooty-faced finch on the mountain face above us.
The finch did not give up his position easily as he moved in and out of the shadows, but we did get pretty good looks.
Alex then told us the story of an elderly birder who joined a tour and announced, "I'm only here for one thing. I want to see the lanceolated monklet." The tour leader was a little disappointed to hear this as this is one of the most elusive birds in Costa Rica, but Virgen del Socorro is one of the best places to see it, so there was at least a chance.
Well, it turned out that the birder's mobility was poor and when the bus got to Virgen, he decided that the trail was too difficult for him and stayed in the bus at the top of the "road". Of course, the group got down close to the river and located the monklet, but this is where the story gets good.
The guide had a radio and radioed the bus driver at the top of the hill. It seems that the driver was a strapping fellow and he scooped our monklet-seeker up and started walking down the hill. As the walk down is probably 20-30 minutes, you may think that there is a sad ending to this but no, he got his lanceolated monklet! Nancy and I allow as how we hope the driver got a very nice tip. I'm sure he did.
On the drive from Virgen del Socorro, we made a stop at a private home. The homeowner has a beautiful little house overlooking the valley with a large waterfall visible. The house is built on a steep hillside and is propped up by beaMs. She has set up hummingbird feeders, so we used her bathroom and watched the hummingbirds. We got a brown violet-ear and white-bellied mountain-gem here along with some of our old friends from the Monteverde area like violet sabrewing, magenta-throated woodstar, and green-crowned brilliant.
Perhaps most intriguing was the family pet, a huge brown and black tarantula which lives on a mobile made of driftwood. Actually, if we understood the lady, he has the run of the house. Nancy let the spider walk on her hand and looked very calm in doing so. On our return to the States she admitted that she was very nervous and was simply feigning her placid look to try to induce me into holding it. What am I? A rookie?
When we arrived in the Carara area we went straight to Cabinas Carara, our hotel for the night.We unloaded the car, cleaned up a bit, and headed for the Tarcol lodge for a bit of shorebirding. A half-hour scanning the flats yielded about 25 new birds for the trip, though only one was a lifer for Gordon and Nancy, Wilson's plover. It felt good to be able to help with the ID's for a while. It's funny how shorebirding feels so difficult at home, but after a couple days of looking at unfamiliar tropical birds, it's a breeze.
When we had covered the mudflats, we went for walk in the nearby mangroves looking for birds whose name begin with the word "mangrove". Among our target birds were mangrove hummingbird, mangrove warbler, mangrove vireo, mangrove common black-hawk, mangrove cuckoo, and mangrove swallow.
Alex was periodically doing an imitation of a ferruginous pygmy-owl to get the passerines to approach and to hopefully elicit a response from another ferruginous.
Well, we walked through the muck and mire (coincidentally, my attorneys names) and did get mangrove warbler, mangrove swallow and mangrove common black-hawk, along with a nice look at a prothonotary warbler.
All the while, Alex was periodically letting loose with the pygmy-owl imitation. Gordon had also been trying his hand at imitating the ferruginous as its monotonous whistle is an easy one to do. After 40 or so minutes of this and with bird activity low, we decided to give it just another 5 minutes.
Again the monotonous call was loosed on the mangroves, but with a difference. As Alex and Gordon locked eyes, they simultaneously realized that neither one of them was doing the call! And the smiles came to their faces. Now Nancy was in the middle of a story at this point and was not looking at them, so Gordon motioned to her to be quiet. She looked a little annoyed. After all she had been listening to their imitations for a long time now. And then her eyes grew wide as she too realized that neither of them was making the sound she was hearing.
In a flash, Alex had the little puffball in his Swarovski for all of us to look at. He sure looked mad as he whistled away at us.
We gave Nancy a pretty hard time about being the last to realize what was going on, but in the end she forgave us and proclaimed the angry little owl to be her favorite bird of the trip.
On the drive back to the hotel we picked up a nice look at a female black-headed trogon beside the road. This was our fifth trogon species in two days!
After dinner we went for a dip in the hotel pool. We amused ourselves by swapping jokes. It seems there is a whole genre of "North American jokes" about the tourists who don't know about the tropics. Our favorite was the one about the North American who wanted to buy a parrot and teach it to talk. Well, it seems that some enterprising Costa Rican decided to take advantage of the poor fellow and sell him an owl instead, knowing that he wouldn't know the difference.
Some months later, the salesman bumped into our unsuspecting hero, and asked him if his "parrot" was talking yet. The North American responded, "No, he's not talking. But he's sure paying attention!"
After this story we just had to do a little owling after our swim.
We set out cruising the back streets of the small Pacific coast town of Tarcoles, right near our hotel. Alex drove the car while painting the trees with his handy dandy spotlight. I soon gave up the idea that I might be the one to spot the first owl as I could barely follow the beam of light, Alex moved it so fast. I did ask him how he hoped to spot an owl at this frenetic pace, but he just said, "Don't worry. I can smell them".
I had told Alex before we set out that I would very much like to see a spectacled owl, but he said this was most unlikely on the route we were taking tonight as the spectacled prefers deep forest and we were going to be in relatively open areas. He did allow as how we had a chance of finding a spectacled owl the next day in the Reserve, though.
We proceeded scanning the trees and querying the locals we encountered for reconnaissance ("Seen any lechuzas around here?"). We got a report from a non-birding local of an owl with stripes. Following the directions to the recent sighting we found nothing, but as we scanned the area in question a bit more deliberately than usual, I thought I heard a call in the distance, possibly an owl.
As my experience with Costa Rican owl calls was limited to the ferruginous pygmy-owl Alex had called in during the afternoon, I was not at all sure what I heard, so I asked Alex to turn off the car. We listened for about 60 seconds, shrugged and continued on.
About 2 minutes later the car lurched to a halt and I heard the words, "We have an owl!".
Did we ever!! We fairly exploded out of the car (quietly, of course) to see a gorgeous black-and-white owl perched at the top of a leafless tree. The ID was unmistakable to the neophyte even though the owl was illuminated only by the nearby streetlight, but as magnificent a sight as this was by ambient light it was magnified a hundredfold when illuminated by 400,000 candlepower of raw technology.
And then the bird called. The very call I had heard in the distance a few minutes earlier. After several minutes the bird flew across the road and over our heads to a more concealed position. We spent the better part of half an hour with Alex mimicking the call and trying to illuminate the bird in each of his new perches. Eventually Alex became convinced that there was a second black-and-white, so we went in pursuit of this individual.
After a few minutes, there was good news and bad news. The good news: we had found another owl, perched on a low exposed branch just about 50 feet from the road. The bad news: he was facing the wrong direction and there was barbed wire between us and him.
We could see clearly that this was a substantial owl, at least the size of the black-and-white with a dark-brown back turning rufous as it went down to his tail. The problem is that the field guide doesn't offer a picture of owls' backs and none of us was anxious to turn to the text for a more detailed description of owl plumages,lest we miss the critical field if the bird decided to fly.
So we stood and stared. And watched. And speculated. And stared some more.
Alex felt the bird was a little large for the second black-and-white and could see a hint of the bird's belly (we were at approximately 7:30 relative to the bird) which was lighter than expected on a black-and-white. He asked me if I thought it was big enough for a spectacled. Drawing on my vast CR owling experience, the two aforementioned owls plus the size comparisons in the field guide, I could only offer that I would expect a spectacled to be bigger.
So we watched and looked at the field guide and speculated some more, all the while keeping the bird both literally and figuratively in the spotlight. And then the owl turned its head just enough to look down squarely in our eyes.
This was probably the moment of moments in the entire trip.
They must have heard the laughter and congratulations in Puntarenas. The owl stayed put and periodically looked at us. We amused ourselves by seeing who could guess what the bird would have said the first time he gazed upon us if he could talk.
"Do you think you idiots can figure out what am I now?"
"Can you see my fieldmark?"
"Put out that damned spotlight. I'm trying to catch a mouse here."
Eventually the bird flew and we proceeded on the owl prowl.
Next, Alex conjured up a Pacific screech-owl by calling. At first we only heard the bird and followed the sound closer and closer. Then Alex called and with no response apparent from the bird quietly announced, "The bird is here". It seems that the bird heard Alex and flew to a perch in the tree above us. As it was quite dark and the bird flew silently, the only way Alex knew that it was there was that the bird had brushed a single leaf as it landed. Alex detected the movement of that leaf on the windless night and knew what it meant. We were soon staring into the deep yellow eyes of our quarry.
To punctuate the evening, Alex wound up by finding two ferruginous pygmy-owls perched side-by-side in a large tree in someone's front yard.
The day's total:
3 ferruginous pygmy-owls 2 black-and-white owls 2 Pacific screech-owls 1 spectacled owl
This eclipsed the Gover family record of 3 unidentified (probably long-eared) owls seen at South Cape May Meadows in one day. Did it ever! An absolutely magical night.
The next day we were up before dawn to be at the Rio Tarcoles bridge. We decided to bird near the bridge until 6:00, then grab a quick breakfast at the Restaurant Cocodrilo. We got a nice look at a riverside wren before the breakfast bell rang.
After breakfast we headed for the main trail along the river. What a difference ten months make. The dry, dusty path we remembered was totally transformed into a mud pit. We immediately heard the loud, comical cries of the gray-necked wood-rail as we entered, but were not able to sight them, so we continued down the path.
We found some nice birds along here, including our old friend the orange-collared manakin, white-whiskered puffbird, and royal flycatcher. The latter was a particular treat, though we didn't see him flair his crest.
Eventually, mud turned to swamp and we were forced to abandon the rest of the trail. Alex was kind of disappointed, saying that this hurt our chances for several hummingbirds, but there really was no choice. The trail was just too muddy. I believe this was a souvenir left by Hurricane Mitch.
Alex decided the best course of action was to walk the trails near the ranger station. We all tried to clean the mud from our shoes, but this was largely an exercise in futility. We removed our shoes for the short ride to the station.
Just after we pulled into the station we met a photojournalist named Mike who was working on an article for an adventure magazine. He inquired as to whether we had been seeing any wildlife. We filled him in on sightings and conditions on the main trail and invited him to join us for a bit of birding.
A white-necked puffbird was perched high and exposed just at the trailhead. This has to be a good omen.
Mike immediately impressed us with his intuition for birding etiquette. Perhaps a hundred feet onto the trail, we encountered a chestnut-mandibled toucan busily feeding directly above the trail ahead of us. Mike had specifically asked us about the possibility of seeing toucans, so we waved him to the front for a photo op. He said "I don't want to scare him away." We reassured him that we would not be upset if he did and that he could probably approach pretty closely if he liked. So he shot his fill of photographs.
Alex was hearing golden-naped woodpecker next but it was Mike who found the bird. What a look, just overhead working on a dead tree.
Nancy found an old friend from Belle Plain State Forest, worm-eating warbler. That's a nice one.
Then at a footbridge we hit a mixed feeding flock and picked up good looks at black-bellied wren, tawny-crowned greenlet, and red-capped manakin. Nancy was so moved by the beauty of the red-capped that the tears actually came to her eyes. Then Alex heard a blue-crowned manakin call. He found a female close by, but this was less than satisfying when compared to the picture of the male, so we continued to look for the male. After a few minutes, Nancy said, "Hey what's this black bird with the little blue cap?" Nice going, Nancy.
A Baird's trogon sat still for good looks as well as a black-throated trogon. That makes 7 trogons!
One of the most unassuming of the manakins, a thrushlike manakin, gave us to-die-for looks, too close to focus. And a black-tailed flycatcher stopped in to show his impersonation of an American redstart, flairing his tail as he hunted insects. A couple more good ones!
We closed our time on the trails by hunting down a singing little hermit. We had to kneel to see the little guy singing his heart out on a low perch.
We retired to Cabinas Carara for another helping of garlic fish. I think we amused the waiter, who is the owner's teenage son. Gordon told Alex to ask that instead of the usual tourist portion of french fries we receive a plate like his dad eats. (We had seen his dinner the previous night). This got a pretty good laugh, and we all got double portions of fish with triple french fries.
After lunch we returned to the ranger station to plug a few holes on the list, picking up golden-crowned spadebill, russet antshrike, and Cherrie's tanager, the Atlantic version of the scarlet-rumped.
We returned to Tarcol Lodge and met a birding guide who was a friend of Alex's. He was guiding a pair of enthusiastic birders from Washington, D.C. So we scoped the mudflats, traded stories and sightings, and sat drinking fruit juice served by the lodge owner. Now this how to bird in the tropics!
We only picked up two new tripbirds here, tricolored heron and short-billed dowitcher. We were entertained, however, by a willet who was busily dismembering a crab, while ruddy turnstones lurked nearby waiting for the scraps.
In the morning, we took a quick drive to the shore to try to pick up a few gulls and terns before heading for Monteverde, nothing special here but a few more birds for our burgeoning trip list. We had hoped to see 250 species in this short vacation, but by now we were hovering around the 300 mark and 350 looked within reach.
The drive to Guacimal was uneventful. We took about 45 minutes birding the deciduous forest in Guacimal before continuing up the mountain to Monteverde. We found olive sparrow and rose-throated becard here.
On the drive up, Alex suddenly shouted "Lesser ground-cuckoos!" It was too late for Gordon. Actually, he saw them fly into cover, but not a good enough look to count. Nancy did have a good look though. This time the back seat worked better. Gordon scanned the road edges the rest of the way up the mountain, but no more ground-cuckoos. Manana.
We stopped for white-throated magpie-jays a little later. Actually we were looking for the bat falcon the hangs around the area, but it was likely to be our last chance for the magpie-jays, so we ticked them off. This is a bird Nancy and Gordon can't agree on. Nancy loves their appearance and their strange call. She believes this sound was used in Jurassic Park for the spitting dinosaur who eats the computer programmer ("Newman!"). Gordon, on the other hand, while admitting their beauty, finds their persistent scolding to be about as endearing to a birder as the call of a blue jay, starling, or Canada goose. Different strokes.
As we continued up, Alex caught sight of a gray hawk soaring. We stopped as this was our first look at this bird. We watched the raptor soaring directly over our heads, going in and out of the mist that gives the cloud forest its name. Kind of surreal.
After lunch, it was off to the Finca Ecologica (Ecological Farm) for more birding. We spent perhaps 90 minutes picking up several of the species that could be missed - orange-billed nightingale-thrush, orange-bellied trogon, Chiriqui quail-dove, white-throated robin, and long-tailed manakin. We also spent some time talking with Greibin, a young guide we hired for a morning on our trip last January. He really liked our owling story as told by Alex.
Our taxi in the morning was a little late due to mechanical problems, but we were still at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve at first light. The road really suffered in the storm and there were some very muddy patches that Alex's car clearly could not have negotiated.
As we arrived at the gate a male resplendent quetzal flew by. That's trogon number 8 and another good omen for our last full day in Costa Rica.
We birded the area right near the entrance and were rewarded with a very good look at slaty-backed nightingale-thrush. This bird made Gordon emotional because he had missed it in January despite several minutes of concentrating on the forest floor where Alex had pointed it out to Nancy. All that hard work and now here it is right on the path. We ordered breakfast and continued birding until it was ready. Then we ate outdoors at the picnic tables while hummingbirds visited the feeders there.
After breakfast, it was back to the trails, where we hooked up with another guide, Ricardo Guindon, and his group of two, Jeanne and Michelle. Ricardo's father is one of the Quakers who founded Monteverde. Jeanne and Michelle are teachers at E.A.R.T.H. (Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda) a school located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
We had a great time with them. Gordon tried to be funny with Michelle by quietly saying' "Nice binoculars". (She was also using Zeiss 7x42's). She said, "Oh, I just borrowed them from my friend".
It seems Michelle was a first-time birder who was along for the ride with Jeanne. But she sure was enthusiastic! She looked intently at each bird, and wrote down the name afterwards. A natural-born lister!
Anyway, the combining of our two small groups had a synergistic effect. More eyes find more birds, and the interplay between Alex and Ricardo added to the fun between birds. It was really interesting when Ricardo's father came up the trail. He's a hardy-looking seventyish man who was wearing farmer dungarees. When we first heard him speak it was in Spanish and sounded typically Costa Rican, but then he switched to English and the accent was like that you'd expect of an old farmer somewhere in mid-America. A very amusing combination.
Nancy asked Ricardo, whose English and Spanish are both obviously fluent, which language he was more comfortable with. He looked a little perplexed and said, "You know, people ask me that question all the time. But either way, it's just talking."
Early on we got good looks at several azure-hooded jays. A brown-billed scythebill sang persistently and from close range but was difficult to find. I think most people got a look at it, but Gordon had to settle for seeing the leaves in front of it moving.
Then a cry of excitement, "Barred Parakeets".
This was in fact the first time these birds had been seen in the Reserve in two years. They are generally a higher-elevation species (6500 -10,000 ft.). There was great celebration by Alex and Ricardo as we jockeyed for a good look at them high in the trees over our heads. There were probably between 6 and 10 birds in the group.
Jeanne particularly wanted to see a Zeledonia. Since it is usually under the undergrowth, it is not easy to see. Alex heard it off the path. Jeanne, Michelle, and Nancy climbed up on the raised side of the path to consider the underbrush with him. They didn't hear a Zeledonia, but they knew that if you look where Alex looks, you see good stuff. Again and again they stood for five and ten minute stretches looking at the low plants. Somewhere under there was a little grey bird that they would be pleased to see. Most of these stretches ended in following a more cooperative bird that required just a few dozen feet of position change for a satifying look. While they watched some moist ferns, Grey-breasted Wood Wrens began to goabsolutely berserk. Alex and Ricardo felt that there must be a snake nearby for them to be so excited. Alex moved off to the right to get a better angle to see what they were complaining about. Jeanne and Michele followed. Nancy alone stayed to watch the motionless ferns. A Zeledonia had been under there. Where was it now? As the wrens scolded, a little grey bird with a rusty cap popped up on a large fern. It didn't perch. It stood precariously on the broad fern with its wings flitting busily to keep it balanced. Then it dropped back out of sight. Nancy turned and walked back to the group on the path, wondering how to say, "I SAW IT!" without gloating. Luck and patience.
The two times we've walked up to the continental divide at Monteverde, the weather has been remarkably different in a space of a hundred yards. The Pacific side is drizzly while the Atlantic said is totally socked-in and raining. We'll have to take another datapoint when we return in January.
Up over the divide we were treated to great looks at a hungry black-and-yellow silky-flycatcher feeding 15 feet over our heads. Then Alex heard another "find" in the foliage. "Silvery-fronted tapaculo!"
This bird is renowned for its secretive nature. In fact, we heard someone earlier in the day say that to see this bird you have to step on it. So obviously, we worked a good long while on it as well. And even though it sounded no more than 5 or 6 feet away, the only one of our group of seven who managed a look was Alex. Ah, well...at least the song is pretty.
At this point Ricardo scored a major coup. At least from Gordon's point of view. All through the trip, whenever a green hermit would show up, Gordon would be looking in the wrong direction. And by the time he would look, the bird would be gone. This happened so frequently (maybe 8-10 times) that it became a running joke. So when Ricardo yelled "Green hermit", Gordon was all set to be disappointed. But the bird just stayed and hovered 20 feet away as if to make up for all the teasing that had been endured. Thank you, Ricardo.
Then a slaty flowerpiercer was found high overhead. Alex was working on another bird further down the trail, so Ricardo scored two lifebirds in a row. We cautioned Alex that Ricardo was threatening his position as our leader. Ricardo seemed very pleased at this thought.
But Alex quickly reaffirmed his status by detecting a group of sooty-capped brush-finches. Mixed in was a fiery-throated hummingbird toward the lower part of his range. As we made our way back to the entrance, we had great looks at a female resplendent quetzal. This made a fitting punctuation mark to a fantastic trip.
We stopped birding about 1:30 this day and spent the rest of our time preparing for our return trip in January.
Since no new birds were seen from this time, our total of 363 birds
were observed in less than five full days. Of these 19 were
only" birds. These are designated with an (H) on the list.
Our thanks to Alexander Villegas and we look forward to seeing even
when we return with him in January!
GULLS AND TERNS
HERONS, EGRETS AND BITTERNS
Boat-billed Heron (H)
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
RAILS AND COOTS
White-Throated Crake (H)
Gray-Necked Wood-Rail (H)
DUCKS, SWANS, GEESE
NEW WORLD VULTURES
HAWKS, EAGLES AND KITES
Mangrove Common Black-Hawk
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
Slaty-backed Forest Falcon
AVOCETS AND STILTS
PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
GUANS, CHACHALACAS, TINAMOUS, AND CURASSOWS
Little Tinamou (H)
PIGEONS AND DOVES
Great Green Macaw (H)
Mottled Owl (H)
Black-and White Owl
NEW WORLD CUCKOOS
Striped Cuckoo (H)
SWALLOWS AND SWIFTS
Lesser Swallow-Tailed Swift
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
TROGONS AND QUETZALS
Broad-Billed Motmot (H)
FURNARIIDS AND SPINETAILS
Plain Brown Woodcreeper
Fasciated Antshrike (H)
Great Antshrike (H)
Tawny-Faced Gnatwren (H)
Long-Billed Gnatwren (H)
MANAKINS AND BECARDS
TITYRAS AND ALLIES
Lovely Cotinga (H)
Rufous Piha (H)
Great Crested Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee (H)
Scale-Crested Pygmy-Tyrant (H)
WRENS AND NIGHTINGALE-THRUSHES
Plain Wren (both races)
Nightingale Wren (H)
THRUSHES AND ALLIES
CROWS AND JAYS
VIREOS AND ALLIES
Black-Throated Green Warbler
Yellow-throated Euphonia (H)
HONEYCREEPERS, TANAGERS AND ALLIES
BUNTINGS, SPARROWS, FINCHES, ALLIES
Yellow-Throated Brush-Finch (H)