23 February - 2 March 1999
Ruth and I had always wanted to bird in Costa Rica - that Birding Paradise which thrives on Twitcher Appeal and which every birder craves to visit. All the major birding tour companies regularly advertised trips to CR but, until fairly recently, it was not exactly an easy place to reach, requiring changes of aircraft and long delays passing through intermediate stops. Also, as we all know, organised birding trips are often very expensive so Ruth and I have never used them.
A few months ago one of the larger (non-birding) travel agencies advertised reasonably priced air fares and accommodation on a "direct" BA flight from London (Gatwick) to San Jose with just a one hour technical stop at Jan Juan, Puerto Rico. We decided to give it a whirl and became excited at the prospect of seeing hundreds of exotic birds and putting our life list over the magic 1000 mark. We booked to depart on 23 February and return on 2 March, deciding that one week would be enough to give us a taste of the country and not too long if we didn't like it (we did -enormously).
We sought, and received, a great deal of advice and information via the Internet and various magazine articles. The following books were purchased and duly studied:
Upon arrival in San Jose (quite late on the Tuesday evening thanks to airline cock-ups en route) we transferred directly to our hotel (the excellent Bougainvillea, some 10kms north of San Jose). We were tired and it was dark but we had never experienced anything quite like the 25 minute ride. The roads were poor and there appeared to be very few signposts once we had left the main highway. The hotel seemed to be located amongst a maze of side roads, which did not tie in with the main map we had - a fairly detailed map provided with the book "Insight Pocket Guides - Costa Rica", which we had also purchased in the UK prior to our departure. (It's a good little book but for the following reason we feel unable to recommend it!). It soon transpired that the hotel located on the map as the Bougainvillea was in fact the Tournon!! The Bougainvillea was some 10kms north of the city and remote from any main roads. Furthermore, no maps we had covered the area around the hotel and the hotel itself was apparently unable to provide any! Naturally enough, this raised major problems.
We woke early the following morning and immediately set up scopes on the balcony before even dressing. Expecting to see trees full of exotic birds we were somewhat disappointed to log only 5 species - Cattle Egret, Great tailed Grackle, Tropical Kingbird, Northern Baltimore Oriole and Blue-Grey Tanager. Where were the birds? We dressed and had breakfast at 7.30. There was to be a briefing by our travel company at 9am so we had time for a walk in the 10 acre gardens which were teeming with exotic tropical plants and trees. We got Red-billed Pigeon - the only bird we saw during an hour in the whole 10 acres!! Wow! We see more than that in ten minutes out of our bedroom window back home and our garden is around a quarter of an acre.
During the briefing by the agents for our travel company we were offered day-long coach trips to areas which we had intended to visit so we opted for three - Arenal Volcano, Carera Nature Reserve and Tortuguero. These trips were to occupy three of the next five days but, of course, we hoped to include some birding during them. We decided to postpone renting a vehicle until the Saturday - our first free day.
The local chap who was to be our guide for the next few days was outstanding. He was a biology student with a great interest in ornithology who spoke excellent English and did a most superb job. Often during the trips the coach would screech to a halt when either Vincenzio or Eugene (the driver) spotted something interesting - usually a bird!
We set out early on the Thursday morning for the drive to Arenal, some 60 miles north of our hotel. Many stops were made en route for birds even though the other 8 tourists were not birders (by the end of the week most of the others we toured with had been converted!) and we arrived at Arenal in time for lunch (note - around four hours travelling to cover 60 miles - the roads were very poor with huge potholes requiring our driver to frequently leave the paved surface for safety). The following were logged either at Arenal or en route: Great White Egret, Wood Stork, Grey Hawk, Montezuma's Oropendula, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Pied-Billed Grebe, Northern Jacana, Black Phoebe, Hepatic Tanager and Slaty-tailed Trogon. The Montezuma's Oropendula was an outstanding bird and we saw many of them during our week. On the way back that evening we thought we had a lifer with a Magnificent Frigatebird overhead. We were miles from the sea and, although they do wander for substantial distances inland, nobody else saw it to confirm it. Grrr!
Next morning we took the long drive to Carara and Jaco beach. Carara is about 50 miles WSW of San Jose but it took some three hours driving even though the roads were better than those to the north. A two hour forest walk at Carara in steaming heat produced: Anhinga, Smooth-billed Ani, Chestnut-billed Antbird, Slaty Ant-Wren, Squirrel Cuckoo, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Purple Gallinule, Least Grebe, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Boat-billed Heron (4 birds showing to 10 feet). Great-blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Red-legged Honey Creeper, Scarlet Macaw (Yes!), American Redstart, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Masked Tityra, Streak-breasted Tree Runner, Ruddy Tree Runner, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Olivaceous Wood Creeper, Golden-naped Woodpecker and Black-billed Wren.
We then headed for lunch and a few hours relaxation at Jaco Beach Resort. We intended to walk the beach and do some sea-watching but the heat was unbearable so we crashed into a deck-chair under a palm tree. Before returning to San Jose we stopped at Carara for another, shorter, walk in the forest. The day trip gave us: Magnificent Frigatebird (many at close range), Ringed Kingfisher, Long-tailed Manakin, Blue-crowned Motmot, Brown Pelican, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Baird's Trogon, Snowy Egret, Laughing Falcon, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Green-backed Heron, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Barn Swallow and Blue & White Swallow. We got back very late that evening so saw nothing locally. A bird calling incessantly from nearby defied our attempts to identify it; it might have been a Pauraque..
Saturday morning we had intended renting a car and going out with a locally resident American birder. Unfortunately he was not obtainable on the Friday evening and spaces became available on the Saturday coach trip to Poas Volcano so we took them. The drive to Poas was another bumpy one! Not much to be seen bird-wise at the volcano but one or two stops en route produced: White-winged Dove, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Brown Jay, Red-lored Parrot, Eastern Wood Peewee, Mountain Robin, Torrent Tyrannulet, Hoffman's Woodpecker, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, White-necked Jacobin (hummingbird), Black-cowled Oriole, Greyish Saltater, Spotted Sandpiper, Tennessee Warbler, Black-cheeked Woodpecker. After that trip we arrived back at the hotel in daylight and were able to add Clay-coloured Robin and Yellow Warbler to our list.
Sunday morning we departed early for Tortuguero. The initial route passed in front of the entrance to Braulio Carrillo park, where we saw the only other "working" birder during our stay - standing beside the road looking purposefully through his bins. Wonder what he had? Tortuguero, located on the Caribbean coast, is only accessible by air or water. Following an hour-long drive on rough roads through a banana plantation we arrived at a rough landing stage and boarded a fairly basic 10-seat, flat-bottomed, outboard motor-boat driven by a local boatman. As there were too many on our coach for one boat Ruth and I had to join 4 American people from another tour. The boat trip was fantastic and being in one of two made things quite exciting. If people on the leading boat saw something the boat would stop and the second boat would roar up at great speed so as not to miss out! If the second boat stopped for something it would then hurtle along to catch the other one, which would then execute a quick 180 and hurtle back down river to catch the goodie. At Tortuguero we stopped for lunch and a short jungle walk, which didn't produce much except the fantastic Scarlet-rumped Tanager. The overall trip gave us: Great Currassow, Ruddy Ground Dove, Reddish Egret, Grey-capped Flycatcher, Nicaraguan Grackle, Common Black Hawk, Chestnut-bellied Heron, Tri-coloured Heron, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Wilson's Plover, Mangrove Swallow, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Royal Tern, Chestnut-mandibilled Toucan and cedar Waxwing. On the long journey back we had a White Ibis fly over.
By Monday morning we decided not to rent a vehicle and spent the day downtown and lazing around the hotel. We added White-collared Swift to our list.
Tuesday was departure day and a quick check revealed that we had seen a total of 99 species in the week. Ruth had seen 98 and Bren 97. Out of those there were 63 lifers for Ruth and 62 for Bren. Had we really been to Costa Rica? We were struck by the extraordinary lack of bird numbers compared to back home in the UK. For example, there were no ground eating birds anywhere around the hotel. Montezuma's Oropendula and Cattle Egret were the two species we saw most of; examples of other species were either singles or 2-3, never flocks. Hummingbirds were fairly plentiful but we only positively identified one species. We dipped on the Replendent Quetzel but the Scarlet Macaw and Magnificent Frigatebirds almost made up for it.
Tuesday evening whilst waiting for the bus to the airport we met two other Brit birders from North Wales who had been there two weeks and had 370!! Plainly they did things properly. (If they read this would they care to write a brief article for this site on what they did to ensure such success?)
Birding aside, it was one of the best holidays we have had and we would thoroughly recommend anyone to visit the country, whether they're birders or not. We experienced no health problems and freely drank local water and ate local food, sometimes at remote and fairly "basic" restaurants (off rough wooden tables on dirt floors). The local food was excellent and the people were very friendly. A working knowledge of Spanish would be very useful but we got by with just our poor English. Driving is something else - read what it says in the tour guides! The Ticos are not aggressive drivers; they just don't drive the way we do. They drive fairly slowly and have no fear about overtaking on blind bends. Nuff said.
Before leaving the UK we had several jabs but took no anti-Malaria precautions. The boss of the tour firm out there said there were very, very few cases of Malaria other than a few in the far north of the country. There had been several cases of Dengue fever, some in San Jose itself. Use of Deet should reduce the chances of being bitten. That said, we saw hardly any flying insects during our stay and just one bite was acquired - by Bren on his hand one night whilst asleep.
In order to get to grips with the birds of Costa Rica Ruth and I plan to return at a similar time next year.