Friday, August 12, 2011

Costa Rica July 2011

Note: Full set of photos here

Even after about 24 hrs travelling after we awoke this morning, it was only about 4pm local when we arrived at our Hotel in the 'little America' (ie with all the Wendys and Pizza Hut one could be in USA) region of San Jose.

Before taking our luggage Leo and i did a recce in the grounds and found Rock Pigeon, Great Tailed Grackle (which are everywhere), Great Kiskadee on the fence, Blue & White Swallows zipping everywhere (the Blue only evident at certain angles), Blue & Gray Tanagers in the trees, Inca Doves on the ground.

First Variegated Squirrel in the trees and a large Spiny Tailed Iguana came out onto his Territorial Rock and did the dipping warning thing.

Carlos our guide reckons 120 species in the week is a a reasonable expectation; Leo and i had set oursleves 100 as a target.

Next morning leo saw House Sparrow, Turkey and Black Vultures, White Winged Dove. Together we saw Crimson Fronted Parakeet, Tropical Kingbird in the grounds.

First trip was up towards Volcano Poas. We had a stop at a hillside coffee plantation where we found Rufous Collared Sparrow fossicking everywhere and a Short Billed Pigeon sat in a tree. The national bird Clay Coloured Robin was there. Very strange that in a country with Respelendent Quetzals and Montezuma Oropendulas, such a dull bird should be chosen.

On up to the National Park entrance and a Volcano Hummingbird seen from the bus. As we start our walk to the crater, a Black Billed Nightingale Thrush is hopping around on the road. Although the crater was too misty to see, we had a clear view of a Violet Headed HB (the white ear dots being key to identification). On the walk back, good views of another HB which later study nailed as another Volcano, the red bill being key.

At the lunch stop, Bronzed Cowbird.

Next day, in Cartago town square Ruddy Ground Dove. On the way up Irazu volcano, Red-Tailed Hawk. At the top Bananaquit, Ruby Throated HB. Then some real specialites - Volcano Junco hopping around the crater rim and a slaty bird we nailed as a Slaty Flowerpiercer when we saw its unique bent mandible.

From there a long drive into the jungly hills (a Cattle Egret) and the amazing Guabayo remains deep in the forest. Band-backed Wren and Buff Throated Saltator identified, a 3-Toed Sloth high in a tree and our first Montezuma Oropendolas, though not clearly seen. Lots of spiders and snakes clearly around - would be an amazing place to spend more time.

Next day, from Turrialba off to the nearby agricultural research establishment CATIE which was bristling with birds. Lots of Oropendolas clearly seen, initially evident from the spectacular yellow tail flashes. I was really pleased to identify a Masked Tityra high in a tree, and then the joy of a Violaceous Trogon - when one finally sees one, their unblinking eye makes it quite clear that they have been watching you for ages. A House Wren, a 888 Flycatcher, Blue Black Grosbeak. After lunch in their canteen a walk round the lake yielded Northern Jacana, in a tree Black Crowned Night Heron, and Green Ibis, Variable Seedeater (black male with a few whitish blotches helping prevent confusion with the Grosbeak). Purple Gallinule, Boat Billed Heron, Gray Rumped Swift. Green Basilisk and a large Green Iguana. From the bar at the pool there, Hoffman's Woodpecker, Collared Aracari. Just boarding the minibus outside the hotel i saw a large Brown Basilisk splashing across the river (not walking on it!) and a Belted Kingfisher holding a fish.

Rufous Tailed Humming Bird in the garden of a Finca we ate at.

Next day on the journey to Tortuagero, Crested Caracaras in a field and Passerini's Tanagers (initially mistaken for RW Blackbird). On the rough road to the boat, we saw Laughing Falcon on a tree, possible Swallow Tailed Kite overhead and Groove Billed Anis in the pastures. Boarding our boat, Brown Pelican and Sandwich Tern. Then a fabulous trip along rivers and canals. First highlight a group of gorgeous Roseate Spoobills on a sandbank. Then Reddish Egret, Amazon Kingfisher, Spotted Sandpiper, Mangrove Swallow, Neotropic Cormorant, Green Heron, Anhinga, Little Blue Heron, Great White Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Crocodile.

It was a noisy night at our Lodge. Didnt want to imagine what some of the creatures behind some of the noises look like. We saw a troop of White Faced Cappuchin monkeys and then were woken at 4.45 by the astonishing roar of a Howler Monkey which sounded like it was just the other side of the screen. It has something of the lion's roar in the way it resonates across the jungle, and prompts a reply from what sounds like miles away.

Setting out for a dawn boat trip we found Collared Mannikin and Blue Dacnis in a tree near the jetty. The trip itself yielded 'only' Black Cheeked WP and Bare-Throated Tiger Heron. Back at the lodge we met Mariano, a local birding expert and his advice enabled us to find several more species around the grounds - Squirrel Cuckoo, Plain Wren, Yellow Striped Sparrow. It seems he knows for every hour of the day where to look and what can be seen. He said that on some 1 week tours with Japanese birders he has found 500+ species.

e had an excellent afternoon boat trip - Slaty Tailed Trogon, Keel Billed Toucan, Chestnut Mandibled Toucan (what a trio to start with). Red Lored and White Crowned Parrot. Black Caiman and Black River Turtle, Spider monkeys - we watched a troop crossing a waterway by swinging through the trees. A mum reached across to grasp a tree on the other side then her baby walked along her body to get across.

Back in the lodge grounds, Golden Crowned Tanager, Yellow Crowned Euphonia (following up Mariano's suggestions again).

That night we headed out at 10pm to the beach to try to see turtles. It is very firmly policed - no cameras, no torches and very strict controls on a limited number of people (6) in each group, with a warden for each, who occasionally uses a red torch to illuminate proceedings . Once a group has seen the 3 phases ( digging, laying, getting back in the sea) they have to leave the beach to allow another group on. The night we were there, a massive electrical storm was raging out over the Caribbean and an edge of it passed over us so we had to shelter under some palm trees. The clouds obscured the moon so there was a lot of stumbling about in the dark. We saw a Green Turtle digging its pit and going back into the sea - that magical moment as the waves start breaking over the giant and it then goes from being a 'fish out of water' to become master of its element. There were lots of reports of turtles starting pits but heading back to the sea without finishing or laying. The emerging hypothesis was that the lightning was putting them off.

Wet, itchy and sweaty we got back to the lodge around midnight for a short nap before getting up for a 5am trip back to the beach to try to see hatchlings doing their 'scurry to the sea' thing. We walked along the beach for several hundred yards, and found another green turtle finishing the post-laying patting down of a decoy nest, before heading back to the sea - wonderful to see in the daylight. I saw a pair of Whimbrel on the beach. On the return boat we took a brief detour to the edge of the Caribbean and there saw Tricoloured Heron and Semi-Palmated Plover.

Back at the lodge before leaving we managed to find Northern Barred and Streak Headed Woodcreepers.

Then it was off on a boat back to rendezvous with the coach. The original route was due to be along a river which briefly takes one into Nicaragua, but this is precisely the area where a border dispute kicked off last year (sparked as i recall by Google maps drawing the border in the wrong place?). So we wereny allowed to go that way. Our guide planned an alternative route, which turned out to be a good thing as the way we came in was apparently flooded by the previous nights storms.

The river we went down was a narrow windy thoroughfare with fast flowing brown water; local boats were bombing along in both directions, undertaking on corners and narrowly avoiding head-on collisions at times. So it was a rather exciting trip! Finally we reached the busy interchange point for buses, which was just a muddy slope up which we human-chained the luggage in the continuing monsoon conditions.

A drive took us to Selva Verde lodge, one of the great birding destinations. Lovely spacious rooms on stilts, lovely polished wood everywhere. Despite being absolutely shattered we of course went straight out birding, starting at the Botanic Garden where we saw Stripe Throated Hermit and Violet Sabrewing.

One of the great treasures of any rainforest are the occasional giant trees, dominating the landscape and supporting a huge variety of life. In this area one such species is the Dipterix, an almond tree which has purple blooms at this time of year. One particularly celebrated specimen is a 3 hour walk from the lodge and has featured in 'world's greatest trees lists'. This species is the favoured feeding/roosting place of the Great Green Macaw, of which there are only 300 left in CR. We could see a couple of Dips from the Bot G, but no macaws.

We then followed the nature trail in the lodge's grounds and saw a couple of Poison Dart frogs, the Green & Black and the Strawberry (or Blue Jeans in honour of its blue legs). We bumped into Ian from the group, who had seen Scarlet Macaw and Tinamou. As we were walking back through the grounds with dusk approaching, we stopped to chat with one of the bird guides Michael. We were talking about the Macaws when he said 'hear that noise, that's them' so we dashed for some open space and saw two groups of 4 flying across high above the trees. What a truly magnificent sight, long tails streaming and operating in a plane high above the canopy.

Exhilarated, Leo and i headed for a final long-shot dusk visit to the Bot G and were rewarded with another pair flying over, alerted by the loud cawing (macawing?) which prefaces their arrival.

Next morning, up early of course. Michael had tipped us off about a fruiting tree which was good for Honeycreepers. So we went there first and found Green Honeycreeper as predicted. Then the Bot G which was excellent with birds at every turn. Mealy Parrot, Chestnut Woodpecker, Pale Billed Woodpecker (the ivory bill is so striking against the scarlet head). Heading back for breakfast, Orange Billed Sparrow.

We were off next for some fairly gentle white-water rafting - sufficiently gentle that we identified Green Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, and Buff Rumped Warbler from the boat.

A shame to leave Selva Verde so soon.

On the drive to Arenal, lots of Red-Winged Blackbirds.

In the morning off into a National Park on the edge of Arenal volcano. Yellow-Faced Grassquit, Yellow-Bellied Elaenia. In the afternoon off to a spectacular waterfall in the rainforest. Marvellous views of 2 Swallow-Tailed Kites on the way there. Golden-Olive Woodpecker.

Next day a very long drive round lake Arenal, Grey Headed Chacalaca whizzing across the road, Roadside Hawk perched, Orange-fronted Parakeets. It is a windy 1.5hr unmade road up to the Monteverde cloud forest. At the lunch stop, great views of White Throated Magpie Jay. Monteverde is a thriving community (alt 4200m) centred around outdoor activities - renminiscent in that way of Grindelwald or Ambleside. The daily deluge prevented an afteroon nature walk, but we were up at 5 for a chance to see Quetzal - Carlos had picked up a tip as to where they had been seen recently (they migate vertically up the hill and we are a bit late for this altitude).

The location was a meadowy area (after all it was farmers doscovering the negative impact on water table of clearing the forest which led to the initial formation of the park back in the 19th C) surrounded by forest. Not unlike a hilly area in the alps or even Northumberland. And not sweaty at that time of the morning. Overall the area is too cold for snakes for example.

As dawn broke, Carlos (our tour guIde) and Kenneth (driver) were whistling the Q call and soon we heard one responding (I made a faint recording on my iphone, as Carlos has used his mobile effectively to capture birdsong) but didnt manage to see it. We did however get Emerald Toucanet (which apparently move around with the Qs) and Brown Jay. Anne spotted an Agouti.

On these early morning outings i was able to wear all my multi-pocketed birding gear, thus peaking at 27 pockets!!

Back to the hotel for breakfast, then off for the deferred group nature walk. Purple Throated Mountain Gem, Ochraceous Wren, Gray Breasted Wren (much darker than in the book, but coincidentally we bumped into Carlos' local mentor, who said he knows the illustrator and has told him this!). Common Bush Tanager, 3 Striped Warbler, Black Faced Solitaire (song like a creaky gate swinging in the wind), Blue and Gold Tanager. There is a feeder at the Humming Bird gallery where we were able to add Coppery Headed Emerald, Stripe Tailed HB, Green Violet Eared HB, Green Crowned Brilliant and Green Hermit.

After this we did an extraordinary zip-wire course, including an amazing 1km wire high high above the tree tops.  A quick lunch then out on a walk across suspension bridges above the canopy which gives beautiful views of a meadow-like serenity. We saw a pair of Black Guans high in the trees before a monstrous downpour set in. The night walk which was to have completed this exceptionally active day unfortunately fell victim to the weather.

Another Q trip at 0500 next day and we again heard the Q in the distance, but this time further away. We did pick up Band Tailed Pigeon however and enjoyed watching Pale Billed WPs and Masked Tityras who were nesting in a telegraph pole! We also stopped to observe a bundle of fur which was apparently a 2 toed sloth.

The days project was a journey down to the Pacific coast, but first stop was on the outskirts to follow up Adrian's  tip that Bellbirds were around. On the way we had excellent views of another Laughing Falcon. We got to hear the Bellbirds chiming (?) clearly and were told they had been by the road at 0700 and indeed were now only 50 yds down a track, but felt we couldnt leave the group waiting any longer. So that's another one we'll have to come back for....

Whilst waiting, we made the effort to further distinguish between the yellow-based flycatchers and hence were able to add the Social Flycatcher.

Coming down from Monteverde on the Pacific side the views are spectacular, but its an hour plus on windy gravelly roads before reaching proper roads on the Pacific plains.

At around noon, after a puncture, we reached Carara (means 'river of alligators') National Park which is a transitional environment near the coast. We did the marked trail there. Much hotter and more humid than Monteverde, with consequently loads of insects and hence birds etc. DEETed up we braved the trail, which was frequently covered by route marching leaf-carrying ants, some of which were undoubtedly  of 'must avoid' status eg Carlos pointed out the spiky bush where each spike houses an army ant.

Before we had walked 20m leo spotted a Turquoise Browed Momot. Rufous Naped Wren (a very big wren) followed with a Long Billed Woodcreeper in quick succession. A Coatimundi was scrabbling in the undergrowth. Long Nosed Bats were resting on a big tree. Down by a little river, leo got a Common Tody Flycatcher, we all saw White Ibis and Carlos glimpsed a Jacamar. Black Hooded Antshrike and Tawny Winged Woodcreeper seen on the way back. Unresolved female Mannikin and poss Parula?

On to Quepos, a rather sleazy coastal town on the rather over-developed Pacific coast. The heavy police presence is attributed to the significant number of 'elements'. A few miles out of town is Manuel Antonio N Park, and we stayed close to the entrance. At this pleasanter end of town, coloured ropes are strung across the road to enables squirrel monkey troops to cross safely. Some of our group saw a sloth hanging off the middle of one of these, seemingly settling in for the night oblivious to the traffic chaos below. The sloth has ano interesting symbiotic relationship with a particular moth and a particular moss. Its poo is key to this relatioinship.

As we arrived at our hotel Leo spotted a Mangrove (formerly Black) Hawk, one of his target species, in a tree.

Next day was spent in the park. But first up a good breakfast at Cafe Linda, an excellent, slightly groovy, backpackers hostel. Orange-Chinned Parakeet in the trees.

It is a 1km walk thru the jungle to the beautiful beach. Walking along the path behind the beach we found Streaked Flycatcher, had a nest of Killer Bees pointed out, saw Coatimundi, Racoon and Aguti. On and around a rocky islet we identified Brown and Masked Booby, and were pleased to work out a Blue Throated Goldentail hummer. Mountain and Hermit crabs. Leo found a Tropical Gnatcatcher and we both saw White Headed Puffbird (acting like a Kingfisher, but all white and black) and Red Legged Rail.

Last day was a cracker too. Pre-breakfast we ticked off Melodius Blackbird, Cherrie's Tanager (identical to Passerini's, but no overlap in areas apparently; i spent sometime trying to id a yellow-breasted, red throated bird only to have it pointed out as being the female Cherrie's), Palm Tanager, Golden Naped Woodpecker, Blue Ground Dove, Yellow Headed Caracara and finally a pair of Black Bellied Whistling Duck flew (rather incongrously) into a palm tree.

Last visit was for a boat trip from Tarcoles, where we saw some of their large crocs as well as a series of great birds: Snowy Egret, Osprey, Muscovy Duck, Least Sandpiper, Wood Stork, Zone Tailed Hawk (white band across the tail, Panama Flycatcher, Rufous Browed Peppershrike, Yellow Crowned Night Heron  and little yellow Mangrove Warbler.

The big question was whether we would get to see the Scarlet Macaw - as Leo put it, 'we have seen the king (Great Green) now can we see the Crown Prince?'

We were caught in a heavy downpour and when it cleared our skipper/guide Juan Carlos (JuanCa for short - geddit?) Said there was a chance we would now see macaws flying from nearby Carara to the coast. It is a big open sky over the river, and I was delighted to spot a macaw coming over - flame of a tail undulating with the power from those great wings. Magnificent.

The almond trees by the beach in the village are a favourite haunt, and a group of urchins were keen to show us and flushed out some macaws with their imitations. I suppose tipping them for that might encourage a protection rather than hunting mindset?

So a great end to the trip. 151 species, 115 lifers way above expectation. Pura Vida.