Costa Rica part 1: San Jose, Volcan Irazu and Rancho Naturalista. 31st March – 2nd April 2017   Leave a comment

This post is the first of several covering my recent trip to Costa Rica. Marketed by Birdquest as the ‘Ultimate Costa Rica tour’ it lived up to its name as I saw all but a handful of the life-birds that occur in this bird-rich country.

In 1981 I had made arrangements to visit the Middle East in late March but just a month or so before I found that the trip had been cancelled. With the leave already booked I looked around for an alternative. I found a tour to Costa Rica that went on the same dates, a little more expensive, but I raised the money by selling some of my photography gear. I didn’t even know where Costa Rica was, I had to look it up in the atlas, but that tour changed my life and opened my eyes to the wonders of tropical birding and as soon as I was earning enough to do so I went to the tropics every year.

With a previous visit to the country, three tours of Mexico and two each to Venezuela and Colombia you would think that I wouldn’t get many life birds on a return visit. However birding in the country has developed so well in the past 36 years that nearly all of the ‘goodies’ are staked out and I saw an astonishing 87 lifers. In fact Costa Rica, a tiny country little bigger than Ireland, has the best ecotourism industry in the world and is leader in the use of sustainable energy and resources. (as well as having the biggest bird list for any country of its size).

It was a highly enjoyable trip and I intend to share some of my many photos on the blog over the next few weeks.

 

I arrived in the capital San Jose just before midnight on 30th March and transferred to the hotel getting to bed by 0200. I spent much of the morning birding in the extensive gardens.

 

There were plenty of birds typical of the Central Valley in the gardens, such as these Rufous-backed Wrens.

 

The ubiquitous Tropical Flycatcher ….

 

…. Social Flycatcher ….

 

…. and Great Kiskadee.

 

Along with Greyish Saltator ….

 

…. and the beautiful and much scarcer Lesson’s Motmot.

 

The group gathered in the evening but had an early night as it was a 0300 departure the next day for the slopes of Irazu Volcano. Once there we had about an hour pre-dawn to try for nightbirds which proved to be most unsuccessful with nothing but a distant song of Dusky Nightjar to show for our efforts. However once it was light we had great views of ….

 

…. Sooty Thrush ….

 

… the perky Sooty-capped Chlorospingus (formerly Sooty-capped Bush-tanager) ….

 

…. and my first life bird of the trip – the exquisite Flame-throated Warbler.

 

The range of this beautiful bird is restricted to the mountains of central Costa Rica and Western Panama.

 

A hike down this slope failed to get us views of the rare and seldom seen Buffy-crowned Wood Partridge, but we continued to score with other montane goodies. We reached an altitude of 3600m that morning, it was cold at dawn but soon warmed up. Later we commenced our descent into the eastern flanks of the central mountain chain.

 

A short detour gave us wonderful views of Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow, a recent split from Mexico’s Prevost’s Ground Sparrow, but time was short and we couldn’t linger.

 

I keep wanting to call this beautiful bird Cannabis Ground Sparrow, but of course it is named after German ornithologist Jean Louis Cabanis and not some entry-level recreational drug.

 

The reason for our leader’s haste soon became clear, we arrived at our next destination, the pleasant Rancho Naturalista with about an hour of daylight remaining. We hurried to a lookout above some pools where a series of hummingbirds, including the exquisite (a word that I am in danger of over-using in this post) Snowcap. Of course in the gathering gloom I couldn’t get photos of rapidly moving hummers but I did capture a bathing Tawny-throated Leaftosser – a bird that is likely to be split in multiple species in the near future.

 

The following morning just before before dawn we had a look at the moth trap.

 

A stunning array of moths had been drawn to the light, including this huge hawk-moth in the centre of the photo.

 

Even whilst it was dark birds such as this Brown Jay (looking green not brown as the trap’s UV light has tinted my photos) came in snatch moths from the sheet.

 

This might have been rather unfortunate for the moths but it allowed us to see a range of species including the rare Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

 

Our time at Rancho Naturalista was all too short and after several hours on the trails and several life birds later we were on our way again. We paused on route for the tricky White-throated Flycatcher (my photos of this ’empid’ were rather poor) and the above Grey-crowned Yellowthroat in an area of rank grassland.

 

Now away from the high mountains and at mid altitude on the Caribbean slope we saw a number common open country birds such as this Groove-billed Ani ….

 

…. and the ubiquitous and rather ugly Turkey Vulture.

 

At a nearby river bed the first bird we laid eyes on was this immature Black-crowned Night Heron, but this wasn’t the reason for our visit.

 

Our local man had a pair of the wonderful Sunbittern staked out. Although I have seen this species on five previous trips, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so well or for so long.

 

The reason they were sticking around was that they had a nest with two well-grown young overhanging the river.

 

Also along the river were several Black Phoebes ….

 

One of the Sunbitterns seemed to take exception to the Phoebes occupying its bit of the river and opened its wings in a threat display. Pete, our tour leader, was better positioned to capture this moment and has an absolutely stunning photo of this event. If I can get a copy and with his consent I’ll post it here in due course.

 

From here we climbed back up the mountainous ridge that forms the backbone of Costa Rica and in deteriorating weather conditions headed for Cerro de la Muerta, literally the ‘road of death’. This will be the subject of the next post (when I’ve edited the photos that is).

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