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Costa Rica part 9: La Selva and Braulio Carrillo National Park; 19/04 – 22/04 2017   Leave a comment

This is the 9th and final post on my trip to Costa Rica. I have uploaded so many photos because the wildlife on this trip was so photogenic and Costa Rica was so rich in wildlife that I felt it needed to be shared with a wider audience.

Costa Rica’s efforts to nurture and conserve the natural environment are to be applauded. I doubt if there are many places on earth where so many interesting species can be seen in such a small area.

Before I start, here are a couple of signs that raised a smile, not necessarily all from the areas covered in this post.

 

One of the best ‘beware of the dog’ signs I have ever seen.

 

Although the sign had been taken down, you can’t help wonder why it was put up in the first place!

 

You’re hardly going to advertise dirty bathrooms are you?

 

Since we left San Jose on April 1st we have been to the south and west to areas near the Panama border, north-west along the coast to Hacienda Solimar, back into the mountains at Monteverde, north along the mountain ridge then descending to the lowlands near Cano Negro and along the Caribbean slope near Volcan Arenal. This final post covers the area around La Selva on the Caribbean slope.

 

La Selva is a reserve belong to the OTS Biological Station where we stayed for the last three nights of the tour. Accommodation was quite acceptable but it was a 1km away from the dining area, which meant it wasn’t easy to pop back to your room for something you forgot. As the area catered for young people performing biological research projects and tourism was a sideline, meals were served up in a school canteen manner and although adequate, didn’t match the service and quality we had experienced elsewhere. Many of the trails were concreted ….

 

…. and even had guide rails. This is great if it encourages those with reduced mobility to get around but it did distract from the wilderness experience somewhat. Oh, and the concreted trails didn’t prevent me from almost stepping on a Fer-de-Lance on the way back from dinner!

 

Now to the birds; on the first afternoon we had a run of good birds near our cabins, the bandit-masked Laughing Falcon ….

 

….. the tiny Bat Falcon,

 

…. and best of all the enormous but exceedingly rare Great Green Macaw.

 

Near to the restaurant we saw beautiful Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker and the delightful all-white Snowy Cotinga but the latter didn’t pose for photos.

 

Birds of prey that breed in North America but winter in South America must pass through Costa Rica as they cannot cope with long sea crossings. Most probably pass along the Caribbean coast and most had probably passed through by the time we arrived, but we were privileged to see a flock of about 100 Mississippi Kites .

 

Collared Peccaries were common and easily seen around the research centre …..

 

…. although potentially dangerous if cornered, these seemed completely accustomed to people walking by.

 

The taxonomy of the larger toucans has been in flux with several former species lumped, but in most areas there are two types, a ‘croaker’ and a ‘growler’. In this area the ‘croaker’ is represented by Keel-billed Toucan ….

 

…. and the ‘growler’ by Yellow-throated (aka Chestnut-mandibled) Toucan.

 

Most male euphonias are blue-black with yellow underparts and crown however Olive-backed Euphonia bucks the trend.

 

I saw two ‘lifer’ tanagers in these forests, Emerald (which I didn’t photograph) and Black-and-Yellow (which I did).

 

White-faced Capuchin Monkeys showed well ….

 

…. as did this Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

 

At nearby Braulio Carrillo National Park we had great views of the stunning Snowcap, one of the prettiest hummers of all, but we failed to see the localised Lattice-tailed Trogon.

=

The White-whiskered Puffbird is normally rare and only seen on about 2/3rds of trips. we saw between 15 and 20 over the three weeks.

 

Buff-rumped Warblers were seen regularly along streams.

 

…. and we had more great views of Crested Guans.

 

We also saw the bizarre Basilisk aka ‘Jesus Christ Lizard’ (as it can run across the surface of water for short distances) ….

 

…. and some delightful poison-dart frogs (delightful that is until you touch them as their skin contains neurotoxins).

 

One of the last additions to our list came as we walked to breakfast on the last morning (having just seen my life Slaty-breasted Tinamou) we found a juvenile Tiny Hawk. Some of the non-tinamou watchers joined us further down the track, we walked back to show them the Tiny Hawk, only find that it had gone and been replaced by an adult of the same species.

 

During our time at Braulio Carrillo National Park we were taken to an area of farmland and woodland by a local guide. We were shown a whole range of great birds, like this Thicket Antpitta ….

….. and this Great Potoo. Potoos have evolved an unusual defense strategy, they are able to roost out in the open because they look and act just like a tree stump.

 

Later we were shown a roosting Crested Owl. This large and magnificent owl was roosting in a thicket and getting a good angle to photograph it without disturbing it was tricky.

 

Then we were shown something really bizarre; just what is Rose photographing?

 

…. Honduran White Bats, tent-making bats that shape a Heliconia leaf into a tent by biting the central rib to form an inverted V and then roosting underneath it.

 

So that about wraps it up, we left La Selva after a late breakfast on the 22nd and arrived at San Jose airport in the early afternoon. We all went our separate ways; some flew home that afternoon, some stayed on for further adventures in Costa Rica and I stayed overnight and flew on to Newark the next day to stay with my friend Patty in Connecticut for a few days (see earlier post).

I obviously research foreign tours before I book them, so trips usually come up to my expectations, but seldom exceed them. This was an exception, I found this tour, with its carefully honed itinerary, that squeezed as many goodies into 22 days as you could possibly imagine, to be most satisfying. There were disappointments of course, but not very many. Even though I had been to Costa Rica before, twice to Colombia and Venezuela and three times to Mexico I still picked up 87 new birds considerably more than I expected.

I can highly recommend Birdquest’s Ultimate Costa Rica tour.

 

Costa Rica part 8: Arenal Observatory Lodge and La Selva; 18/4 – 19/4 2017.   2 comments

This is the penultimate post from my trip to Costa Rica covering the the Caribbean slope at Volcan Arenal area and a couple of stops on route to La Selva.

 

 

 

The Arenal Observatory Lodge acts as both a tourist lodge and a scientific station keeping a watch on this active volcano. This was one of the prettiest places we stayed with great views from the deck of the volcano ….

 

…. with a plume of steam rising from the summit ….

 

…. and  the nearby lake. This is the same volcano that we saw from San Gerado (see post Costa Rica part 6) which isn’t far away at all, its just that we came the long way round.

 

There were some feeders close to the decking where a number of birds that I have already illustrated, like Red-legged Honeycreeper, were seen. We also regularly saw Bananaquits, this is a species that gets a surprisingly poor press. It is quite pretty and is the only member of the Coerebidae, so of great interest to ‘family collectors’ but because it is common it gets dismissed as a ‘trash bird’.

 

Small birds like Bananaquit are to be expected at feeders but imagining opening your curtains at home and seeing a Great Currasow on your bird table.

 

…. or seeing a whole bunch of Coatis playing around below it for that matter.

 

One of the amazing thing about the lodges in Costa Rica was how tame the cracids had become. Guans, Currasows and Chachalacas have been hunted for millennia and hence are very timid, but here these Crested Guans were just walking around on the lawn ….

 

…. or perched up on a wall.

 

Seeing the turkey-sized female Great Currasow wandering around on the road was a treat ..

…. upstaged perhaps by by the black male with it’s punk crest.

 

Early in the morning we took a trail to a scenic waterfall seeing a nice range of birds but the real excitement happened on the way back.

 

Totally unexpected was this encounter with a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In my post about Monteverde and San Gerado I explained how we were disappointed that the nearby ‘brollybird’ lek had been abandoned and they hadn’t been seen reliably at the site since 2014. Having given up hope of seeing this mega we were amazed when one flew over the ornamental gardens of the lodge. Initial views were poor but a local guide leading a couple of guests around relocated it and we all got superb views.

 

It wasn’t a full adult but a juvenile male with the start of the ‘umbrella’ (the forward pointing crest that hangs over the bill) and the bare red throat that is inflated in display.

 

It goes without saying that this was the bird of the trip, not just for me but for just about everyone else as well. I was asked earlier ‘if the Zeldonia was number two bird of the trip what ever was number one’, well here it is!

 

As well as birding around the lodge we also visited the area around the lake.

 

The river near the lodge was crossed by a number of suspension bridges, of far better quality than the ones at Heliconia (see last post).

 

Other interesting birds seen in the area included the retiring White-tipped Dove,

 

…. Keel-billed Motmot, which were often paired with a Broad-billed Motmot (bringing their true specific status into doubt)

 

…. and Rufous-winged Woodpecker (hiding it’s rufous wings under the mantle).

 

On the first night at the lodge I had excellent views of Black-and-white Owl, the second night some of us went ‘herping’. First to be seen was this small venomous viper ….

 

…. and at a pond we found this beautiful yellow frog ….

 

…. but the highlight was this pretty Red-eyed Tree Frog.

 

The day we departed Arenal Observatory we headed for private reserve at La Fortuna in the hope of seeing Uniform Crake, this time we did  and very well, we even saw a pair building a nest. As the light level was so low when we set out I didn’t take my camera, which was a mistake as the views were prolonged and as the light improved they were highly photographable. Back at the reception we did see a pair of White-throated Crakes though (above).

 

As on our previous visit Grey-headed Chachalacas were common and tame ….

 

…. and even their small chicks came to the bird table.

 

Other visitors included the ubiquitous Blue-grey Tanager ….

 

…. and Tropical Mockingbird. On my 1981 trip the guide and two of the clients saw this species near San Isidro and it was the first record for the country, since then it has colonised much of lowland Costa Rica.

 

We headed back into the mountains to Cataracta de Torro, a small lodge that has a number of trails, hummingbird feeders and spectacular views.

 

We were just after two species, both of which we saw well; Black-bellied Hummingbird ….

 

…. and White-bellied Mountain-gem.

 

We continued on the mountain roads to Cinchoma were we stopped for lunch. From the cafe we had views of several bird feeders with the backdrop of another waterfall.

 

However within minutes of our arrival the heavens opened and we were caught in a torrential downpour.

 

At least we were undercover!

 

The hummers sheltered under leaves during the worst of the rain but it only had to ease off slightly and they were back. This is a Green Thorntail.

 

I have posted pictures of Green-crowned Brilliant previously, but none catching the light quite like this.

 

…. our old friend Violet Sabrewing put on a good show too.

 

From here we continued to La Selva and the OTS Biological station where we were to stay for the final three nights of the tour. This will be the subject of the final post in this extended series, but here’s a photo from La Fortuna to end on.

 

But of all the wonderful things we saw today, the Red-eyed Tree Frog early this morning was one of the best. In daylight with the pupils contracted and the iris at full size, the red-eyes look totally  amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costa Rica part 7: northernmost Costa Rica; 15/4 – 17/4 2017   Leave a comment

This post covers two areas in northernmost Costa Rica, the areas around Celeste Mountain Lodge and Heliconia Lodge,a boat trip on the Rio Frio near Cano Negro and birding in nearby marshes..

 

From Monteverde we made our way to the beautiful Celeste Mountain Lodge.

 

This lodge, with it’s open plan architecture was a delightful place to stay with great views of the surrounding forest and excellent food. The birder on the left is looking out of a slidable picture window that looks straight onto an elevated bird feeding platform.

 

Hoised up by pulleys, the platform is host to Passerini’s, Palm and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Black-cowled Oriole and Clay-coloured Thrush.

 

Visitors included common birds like Great Kiskadee ….

 

….. and male and female Passerini’s Tanagers. The male looks almost identical to Cherrie’s Tanager of the south-west that I uploaded previously but the female has a greyer head and a reddish blush to the upper breast and rump.

 

Joining them here are the subtle Palm Tanager and gaudy Golden-headed Tanager.

 

This was the only place we saw Crimson-collared Tanager, a life bird for me.

 

Another of the look-alight euphonias. The fact that the yellow comes to a point below the bill rather than there being a wholy dark-blue chin shows that this is a Yellow-throated Euphonia rather than one of its congeners.

 

Black-cowled Orioles appeared at the feeder and in the nearby trees.

 

We stayed overnight at Celeste Mountain Lodge and before we left the next day ….

 

…. we were rewarded with excellent views of the elusive White-tipped Sicklebill which seldom sticks around for photos. A specialist of heliconia flowers (hence the unusual bill shape) the species ranges from Costa Rica to northern Peru but is difficult everywhere and I have only seen it once before (on my 1981 Costa Rica trip).

 

These were not the only feeders in the area; at the entrance to the nearby national park Passerini’s and Palm Tanagers were joined by a Red-legged Honeycreeper.

 

Honeycreepers are part of the main tanager family Thraupidae. Here is daddy ….

 

and this is his ‘son’ (females don’t have the dark remiges and coverts).

 

We spent much of the following morning at an area of rainforest behind nearby Heliconia Lodge. This deep gully was crossed by several suspension bridges.

 

Mel crosses the bridge in the morning mist, but worryingly another bridge had collapsed forcing us to cross the gully the hard way.

 

Birding here was difficult and although we scored with a few nice birds progress was slow. Perhaps the highlight was our best view of Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth. I know what you’re thinking ‘its got three toes’ All sloths have three toes on the hind limbs, its the number on the forelimbs that separates the three-toed and two-toed species. From here we had distant views over a large body of water with land beyond it. Initially I thought it must be the Gulf of Nicoya that we had seen on route to Hacienda Solimar, but that was far to the south. Others said it was the Caribbean coast but that was too far away as well. It was in fact the enormous Largo Cocibolca in Nicaragua. Unfortunately due to mist and heat haze I didn’t bother with any photos.

 

In the late afternoon we checked out a site for Lovely Cotinga, which looks quite like the Turquoise Cotinga that I illustrated in post #2. Some of us spread out looking for the bird, but it was those who hung around by the bus who scored. I was some way way down hill and arrived breathless only to see it fly. This was the most disappointing experience of the whole trip.

 

A gathering of Swallow-tailed Kites, nice as they were, were little compensation.

 

We arrived at out next destination, the hotel at Cano Negro well after dark and were welcomed by an imitation Mesoamerican statue converted into a water feature.

 

Early the next day we took a boat trip on the nearby Rio Frio some 10 km away from the Nicaraguan border (although the area was anything but frio once the sun got up). There were two main targets, Grey-headed Dove which we saw in the half-light before boarding ….

 

…. and the diminutive Nicaraguan Grackle which just crosses the border into northernmost Costa Rica. The male is far smaller than Great-tailed and lacks the purple gloss ….

 

…. whilst the female, as well as being smaller than female Great-tailed, has a paler belly and more prominent supercilium.

 

Waterbirds that I haven’t featured before on the blog included  Anhinga ….

 

…. Neotropical Cormorant,

 

…. and Pale-vented Pigeon (for such a colourful pigeon couldn’t they find a better name than ‘pale-vented’?)

 

But some birds I couldn’t resist posting for a second time, such as this male Ringed Kingfisher ….

 

…. or the wonderfully bizarre Boat-billed Heron.

 

One of the highlights was getting great views of both sexes of Sungrebe, the Neotropical representative of the Heliorthinidae. a very ancient family that are not related to cormorants or other similar waterbirds. The female (above) is more brightly coloured than the male, although unlike the plumage and role reversed phalaropes and buttonquails where the male incubates and cares for the young, both sexes share parental duties.

 

That said the duller male has something unique in birds, a flap of skin under each wing. If danger presents the two chicks can clamber into the flaps and the male can fly with them on board to safety. Sungrebes and the two Old World finfoots do not generally dive for food, rather pick insects off overhanging vegetation.

 

Surprisingly a boat trip can provide a good vantage from which to to tape out elusive birds such as this Spot-breasted Wren.

 

This bird took me completely by surprise. I have seen Grey-necked Wood Rail on several trips but had forgotten that the populations from southern Mexico to extreme northern Costa Rica had been split as Rufous-naped Wood Rail (not to be confused with Rufous-necked Wood Rail that we dipped earlier in the trip).

 

The river bank was full of Spectacled Caimans ….

 

Some were a bit apprehensive when we got out of the boat at this marsh where the caimans were abundant. However it was good to remember the old adage ‘if it runs away from you its a caiman, if it devourers you it’s a crocodile’. These ran away.

 

If searching for birds is called birding and searching for owls is known as owling then this must be craking. We formed a line and stomped through the marsh hoping to flush a crake or two.

 

We flushed a single Grey-breasted Crake and two or three Yellow-breasted Crakes. By leaving the camera on a wide-angle setting and pressing the shutter the moment a crake flew (without even moving the camera up to my eye) I was able to get this shot of a Yellow-breasted Crake.

 

Widespread from Canada to northern Costa Rica, Red-winged Blackbirds were abundant in the marshy areas.

 

They looked particularly attractive when they raise their red and yellow epaulettes in display.

 

On my return to the UK I heard that a female Red-winged Blackbird had been found on North Ronaldsay in Orkney. A first for Britain (if you discount some deliberate releases in the 19th C) it attracted a lot of twitchers. Although I like to add to my British list I’m not in that league. That said if it was a world lifer and I couldn’t easily see it on a planned future foreign trip I’d have be enquiring about charter flights!

 

On the edge of the marsh was a lake with the usual run of stilts, egrets etc but a group of Blue-winged Teal (just visible in the centre) and American Wigeon (which are not) made the visit worthwhile.

 

In the wet grassland were a few Collared Plovers, a resident wader species ….

 

…. and the highly migratory Pectoral Sandpiper. Recent research has shown that when Pecs have completed the arduous journey from Patagonia to the Canadian/Alaskan tundra, the males then fan out, some visiting the entire breeding range from the tundra of the northern Ural Mountains to Canada’s Baffin Island in a single season. Here they display at a series of leks attempting to mate with as many females as possible over their entire 4000km breeding range before flying back to Patagonia to winter. Aren’t birds just marvellous!

 

It was back to the hotel and it’s weird statue for breakfast, then on again to some areas of marshes and irrigated fields.

 

Here we found that aberrant wader, Wattled Jacana in some abundance. The bird at the rear is a juvenile. Interestingly the Lesser Jacana of Africa looks just like a small version of juvenile African Jacana and is a rare example (in birds at least) of neotony, speciation by remaining in juvenile plumage until of breeding age.

 

Green Kingfishers were particularly photogenic in the irrigation ditches surrounding the fields.

 

Thee same ditches gave us wonderful views of White-throated Crake ….

 

…. our third crake of the day (fifth if you include rails and galinules) although as often happens the bird hasn’t been named after its most obvious field characteristic.

 

I have posted a number of photos of adult Bare-throated Tiger-heron before but here is a tiger-striped juvenile ….

 

…. but this heron, Pinnated Bittern was a real surprise. I have been searching for this bird since the 80’s and have drawn a blank across its huge Neotropical range. It was one of five write-ins on the trip, ie species that have never been recorded in Birdquest’s 30 years of running trips to Costa Rica. Three of these are species that have been added due to taxonomic revision (that is recorded before but not when they were considered full species) another was Wilson’s Phalarope, which was just a scarce migrant and the fifth was this bird – which just goes to show how thinly spread they are over their enormous range. Maybe not quite the bird of the trip but one of the contenders certainly.

 

Another Nicaraguan bird that just creeps over the border into Costa Rica is Nicaraguan Seedfinch. After some searching we found this huge-billed gem in a fallow field.

 

Seedfinches don’t usually feature very high on birders want-lists but with a bill like that this qualifies as a ‘mega’.

 

Our final destination on this action packed day was a visit to a private reserve at La Fortuna. Grey-head Chachalacas were common and tame but we failed to score with the elusive Uniform Crake, (although we did hear it and it was probably glimpsed). Shame as a four crake day would have been something special.

 

Ominous clouds were gathering as we left and headed for the nearby Arenal Observatory Lodge.

 

At Arenal Observatory Lodge some of us went out owling after dinner and saw the magnificent Black-and-White Owl. I didn’t take any photos through. The point of telling you this is that this means I saw eight life birds today, unprecedented in my recent birding history – what a day!

 

Costa Rica part 6: Hacienda Solimar, Monteverde and San Gerado. 11/04 – 15/04 2017   Leave a comment

This post covers our time at the Hacienda Solimar in the dry north-west of Costa Rica, the ecotourist resort of Monteverde and the research station at San Gerado.

 

A common bird through much of Costa Rica but especially in the dry north-west was Great-tailed Grackle. The males are much larger than the females and the strange twisted tail feathers looks pretty impressive in flight.

 

Gnatcatchers were more common in these dry area. I find the nomenclature of the two species to be most confusing, this is a female Tropical Gnatcatcher and has pale lores, on the other hand White-lored Gnatcatcher has a dark line on the lores and is identified by the lack of white supercillium in the male or narrow one in the female. We saw a pair of each species together at one point – no wonder I get confused.

 

 

Yellow-naped Amazon was a great find and a life bird for me.

 

In due course we arrived at the lovely Hacienda Solimar where we were to stay for the night.

 

A working cattle ranch, but with areas dedicated to wildlife conservation, we were able to see substantial numbers of waterbirds during our stay.

 

Perhaps the most numerous bird was Black-bellied Whistling Duck ….

 

…. which rose in large numbers when the pair of local Peregrines appeared.

 

But the main prize was the huge Jabriru, the largest stork in the Americas. in the background are White Ibis and an immature Little Blue Heron.

 

Although this was a paradise for birds we were in a bit of a rush as the light had started to fade and we didn’t get out of the vehicle to scope up the wetlands.

 

Fortunately before the sun had set we had good views of a pair of Double-striped Thick-knees, a relative of out Stone Curlews.

 

Sunset over the Hacienda ….

 

…. and moonrise over the mountains.

 

The following morning we saw beautiful butterflies, flushed Spot-breasted Bobwhites ….

 

…. and watched Streak-backed Orioles building their nests.

 

In the dry forest and open pastures we found ….

 

…. Howler Monkeys,

 

…. Black-headed Trogon,

 

…. the huge Lineated Woodpecker and

 

…. another of those tricky Myiarchus flycatchers, this time Nutting’s Flycatcher,

 

…. and the striking Short-tailed Hawk.

 

Banded Wren showed well ….

 

…. and even did a little show jumping for us.

 

Hoffman’s Woodpecker is the common ‘pecker of the arid north-west ….

 

…. and we had more close up views of Lesson’s Motmot.

 

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl is a widespread and relatively common diurnal species and its call is often imitated by leaders in an attempt to drawn other species in.

 

On the other hand the diminutive Pacific Screech-owl is nocturnal but the guy at the guest house knew exactly where one was roosting.

 

The best bird of the morning was this lovely Lesser Ground Cuckoo which I flushed from the grass just yards from the bus as we were about to board. It flew to nearby trees and gave great views.

 

…. but the species of the day and mammal of the trip was this Northern Tamandua, a species of arboreal anteater that Hermann spotted from the moving bus! It slowly climbed down the bough ….

 

…. and then climbed up the main trunk until lost to view in the foliage.

 

After lunch we left the dry lowlands and headed up into the mountains and the ecotourist mecca of Monteverde. When I visited Monteverde in 1981 it was a 25 mile drive on a dirt road to a small Quaker community where there was a research station with basic accommodation and a small hostel. Now it is Costa Rica’s premier ecotourist resort with accommodation that caters for everyone from lethargic backpackers to the well-heeled.

 

As well as catering to birders, the area has several canopy walkways to allow the naturalist and the curious to get close to treetop wildlife, multiple zip-lines for  adrenaline junkies and a nice line in rainbows. East of the continental divide at 1500m  it is pretty wet, but to the west you can see the clouds billowing over and evaporating in the dry Pacific air. It was quite windy, especially in the vicinity of our hotel which was in an exposed location.

 

The area consists of at least three large areas of protected forest. On our first outing we scored birding gold with not just views, but photos as well, of the retiring Chiriqui Quail-dove.

 

Although we saw another Resplendant Quetzal (making it the third location of the trip) ….

 

… the highlight was the amazing Three-wattled Bellbird. To hear it’s incredibly loud song go to http://www.xeno-canto.org/331004

 

Can any other songbird open its mouth as wide as this?

 

A Coati trotting away down the track resulted in this unusual shot.

 

We were only one night at the nice hotel. Leaving most of our gear there the following day we hiked down a wide trail for a couple of hours to a research station at San Gerado on the Caribbean slope where we stayed for two nights. On arrival we had a stunning view of Volcan Arenal further to the east.

 

The accommodation was probably the most basic of the trip, but there were some nice compensations such as complete peace and quiet, a supply of wonderful moths to photograph ….

 

…. and a balcony with great views of Volcan Arenal. Alison is demonstrating how to get into a hammock without ending up on the floor, something I have yet to master.

 

It was a good job we saw Arenal on arrival as this was the view for most of our visit.

 

We had our fair share of mist and rain whilst at San Gerado ….

 

…. but it did clear enough to allow us to bird the nearby pastures and mature montane forest.

 

Our main target was the amazing Bare-necked Umbrellabird which used to lek in a tree some 45 minute walk from the lodge. Unfortunately this lek site has been abandoned since 2014 (although the tour information still says that you have a very good chance of seeing one here). We did see some great birds in the area though. In the pastures around the lodge was a colony of Montezuma’s Oropendolas (above) ….

 

…. and this was the only place on the entire trip where we saw the scarce Blue and Gold Tanager. Another goody was the riverine Sooty-faced Finch which after hours of searching numerous stream-beds was tracked down at a little river close to the lodge just minutes before departure.

 

Raptors included Black-hawk Eagle, the elusive Bicoloured Hawk (above) ….

 

…. and the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures that roosted adjacent to our rooms.

 

After two rather wet nights (and one rather wet day) at San Gerado it was time for the long slog back to Monteverde. I walked, but about half the group paid extra to be ferried on the back of a quadbike.

 

Back in Monteverde we returned to the hotel and visited some great hummingbird feeders nearby. This is a Violet Sabrewing.

 

…. male Green-crowned Brilliant,

 

…. but the chestnut-throated juvenile Green-crowned Brilliants are a trap for the unwary.

 

A male Purple-throated Mountain-gem shows off all it’s best bits.

 

A female Purple-throated Mountain-gem joins a Lesser Violetear at the feeder.

 

Magenta-throated Woodstar was a life bird ….

 

…. as was the diminutive Coppery-headed Emerald.

 

Although we had started to see a number of species of owl, we still were short of Bare-shanked Screech Owl that we had dipped on so spectacularly at Cerro de la Muerta. Pete suggested we go back to the start of the San Gerado track after dark where to everyone’s delight we scored with Mr Bare-shank (but I didn’t get any photos). Later at a restaurant near the hotel we met up with Robert Dean (left), an acquaintance of Pete’s and a Monteverde resident. Robert is the illustrator of the Helm Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Originally from the UK he once had an interesting career as a rock guitarist and was a member the 80’s band Japan.

 

The following morning we had wonderful views of Black-breasted Wood Quail but I got no decent photos in the gloom of the forest floor. So I’ll conclude this post with another photo of a female Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

 

From Monteverde we drove along the mountain ridge to Celeste Mountain Lodge to the north. This will be the subject of the next post.

Costa Rica part 5: waders/shorebirds at Punta Morales Saltpans; 10/04/2017   Leave a comment

This post covers a couple of hours visit to a single site, the commercial salt pans at Punta Morales in north-western Costa Rica. As waders (or shorebirds as they are known in the Americas) have a universal appeal to birders I have dedicated an entire post to this short visit and have attempted to illustrate every wader seen plus a few of the terns. We visited some salt pans in this area in 1981, possibly the same place. Nearly all the species would have been lifers then, now none of them were, but I enjoyed seeing them just as much as I did the first time.

 

An early afternoon visit to the salt pans was most successful. Unfortunately we only had two scopes between us so initially it was a slow process getting onto all the waders. However as we walked around the pans we found we could get close enough to most birds for decent photos and indeed I think I managed to photograph every wader present.

 

Many birds were on the bunds between the pans, others were wading in the brine. This mediocre photo has been included as its the only photo I took of Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, seen in the top right.

 

There were large numbers of Black Skimmers present. A not particularly appropriate name as all three species of skimmer show a similar black and white plumage and this is no more black than the other two. These aberrant terns feed by flying low over water with their long lower mandible just below the water’s surface (the so-called ‘unzipping the pond’), if the lower mandible encounters a prey item the upper mandible snaps shut to secure it.

 

With the skimmers was a small number of Royal Terns. Recent genetic work was shown that the African and American forms of Royal Tern have diverged sufficiently to be considered separate species,  but as yet I haven’t heard of any reliable ways of separating them in the field, not has this discovery been taken up by mainstream world checklists.

 

At the back are three black-billed Cabot’s Tern’s named after  American physician and ornithologist Samuel Cabot III. This is a recent split from the Old World Sandwich Tern, although the American checklist committees SACC and NACC have yet to ratify this (but the IOC and BOU has). In the foreground is a ‘Hudsonian’ Whimbrel. This larger, more strongly patterned, dark-rumped version of our Eurasian Whimbrel has been treated as a separate species by the BOU, but not by the IOC or other world checklists. As the BOU will adopt the IOC checklist as the basis of the British List as of 01/01/18 then we will lose this one from the British List (there have been a few records of this American form in the UK including along-stayer in Cornwall).

 

Most of the species of wader present have occurred as vagrants in the UK at some time or other (hence British birders interest in American waders) but one that hasn’t is Wilson’s Plover which has a more southerly distribution than most.

 

Also known as Thick-billed Plover this species breed from SE USA to Belize and the West Indies and winters as far south as Brazil.

 

Another species that has not made it to the UK is Marbled Godwit which has an interior distribution in North America and doesn’t make any of the major ocean crossings that seems a prerequisite for regular trans-Atlantic vagrancy. A single Whimbrel is the middle of the flock facing left.

 

Here Marbled Godwits can be seen with Black-necked Stilts, Stilt Sandpipers and a single Willet.

 

Marbled Godwits in flight, unlike the other three species of godwit they don’t show either white wing-bars or white rumps..

 

Yellowleg species were surprisingly scarce on this trip. perhaps they had already departed for their breeding grounds in North America. This is the Greenshank-sized Greater Yellowlegs. I saw my second UK Greater Yellowlegs in Hampshire in 2015 but Lesser Yellowlegs is much commoner, one stayed at our local patch for seven months from September 16 and eventually departed after I had left for Costa Rica in late March.

 

Closely related to the Old World Black-winged Stilt, the Black-necked Stilt of the Americas was common on the saltpans. There are four ‘black-and-white’ stilts worldwide differing only in the precise pattern of black and white on the head, neck and back and there is a good argument for lumping them all together.

 

Joining the Stilts, Godwits and Whimbrel in this photo is a single Stilt Sandpiper in the foreground and four Willets. This omnatopoeic bird surely consists of two species, Eastern and Western Willet (these are all Western Willets) and a proposal to split the two forms is being considered by the NACC currently, here is a summary taken from the proposal: The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) includes two broadly allopatric subspecies that exhibit morphological, ecological, vocal, and genetic differentiation. The eastern subspecies (T. s. semipalmata) breeds almost exclusively in saltmarshes and brackish coastline habitat along the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and certain localities in the Caribbean In contrast, the western subspecies (T. s. inornata) breeds in brackish and freshwater wetlands in the Great Basin as well as prairies in the north-western United States and southern Canada. The western subspecies winters along rocky habitat on the Pacific coast from the north-western United States south to Chile. While the two species may co-occur during migration and on certain wintering grounds, pair bonding occurs on breeding grounds which are allopatric between the two subspecies. For more see: http://checklist.aou.org/assets/proposals/PDF/2017-A.pdf

 

There were a number of Short-billed Dowitchers on the pans. This is a difficult bird to separate from the similar Long-billed Dowitcher (and no, bill length isn’t much help) especially if they are silent. Long-billeds are regular if scarce in the UK but Short-billeds are mega rarities, the one at Lodmoor, Dorset in 2012 was only the 3rd for the UK.

 

Here is a better portrait of one species that has appeared in the background in previous photos – Stilt Sandpiper, (not to be confused with the unrelated Black-necked Stilt at the back). A regular migrant in the Americas, this is a very rare species in the UK although I have seen three in Dorset or west Hampshire over the years.

 

Here a Ruddy Turnstone, a very common species in the New World and the Old, perches behind the New World Spotted Sandpiper.

 

The New World Semi-palmated Plover is very similar to our Ringed Plover. Small differences in the bill and facial pattern separate the two and of course there are the semi-palmations between the toes for those with very good scopes and perfect viewing conditions. But the best way to locate a vagrant Semi-P Plover is by call.

 

It’s now time to look at the smallest waders, the so-called ‘peeps’. This, a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, was by far the commonest.

 

Semi-P Sandpipers and a Semi-P Plover. with a single Least Sandpiper at the far right.

 

A flock of Semi-palmated Sandpipers beautifully reflected in the brine solution.

 

This flock of ‘Semi-P Sands’ is joined by a single Stilt Sand and a Semi-P Plover. Notice the bird in the far lower left, the long curved bill means that this is almost certainly a Western Sandpiper on route to Alaska or far-eastern Siberia. Relatively easy to separate in juvenile or in breeding plumages, winter plumaged adults can be very tricky. They winter further north than Semi-Ps, a lot of them within the southern USA and they were much rarer than Semi-Ps in Costa Rica.

 

Perhaps the rarest bird at the pans and one that had never been recorded by Birdquest on their many trips to Costa Rica was this Wilson’s Phalarope.

 

There were relative few non-waders/terns at the pans but this Great Egret posed for its portrait. The taxonomy of the species isn’t settled either with the small far-eastern subspecies modesta probably deserving species status, whilst the New World alba differs from the Eurasian form in bare part colouration, breeding plumes and display.

 

As was always the case we didn’t have enough time to really study all the subtle features of these fascinating waders and soon it was time to leave the pans and head for Hacienda Solimar which will be the subject of the next post.

 

…. but we’ll end this post with a portrait of the world’s smallest wader, the appropriately named Least Sandpiper.

Costa Rica part 4: Rio Grande de Tarcoles and Carara National Park; 8th-10th April 2017   Leave a comment

 

This post covers the boat trip on the Rio Grande de Tarcoles and our time at Carara National Park.

 

After departing the Rio Rincon area (which was covered in the last post) we headed north along the Pacific coast until we reached the Rio Tarcoles. We spent much of the afternoon on the river seeing a great variety of birdlife.

 

Amongst the many species present were White Ibis ….

 

…. here with a Roseate Spoonbill,

 

…. adult Little Blue Heron (immatures are predominately white) unfortunately it lined itself up with some discarded plastic.

 

…. Tricoloured (formerly Louisiana) Heron,

 

…. and the diminutive Green Heron,

 

…. but pick of the bunch was the bizarre Boat-billed Heron. Their huge and weirdly shaped bill has evolved to scoop fish and other prey items from the surface of the water, whilst the enormous eyes are an adaptation to a nocturnal existence.

 

Another speciality of the mangroves is ‘Mangrove’ Black Hawk, once thought to be a separate species, it is now lumped in with Common Black Hawk.

 

There are only six kingfishers in the New World (compared to 108 in the Old World) and the appropriately named American Pygmy Kingfisher is the smallest of the six.

 

As we reached the mouth of the river we saw other tourist boats ….

 

…. their main interest seemed to be the enormous (and rare) American Crocodiles ….

 

…. but we also enjoyed more views of the pretty White Ibis ….

 

…. and a camera-shy Roseate Spoonbill.

 

We had the luxury of staying at a lodge near Carara NP for two nights, it was one of those all-inclusive places, so most of us swapped an evening beer for numerous cocktails, but of course we were out at dawn the following morning. The Park was surprisingly busy with tourists, especially by mid-morning and there was quite a grockle-jam to photograph beauties like this Scarlet Macaw.

 

Some of the biggest of the worlds parrots, the raucous screech of the large macaws carries for miles. Many species are threatened due to the demands of the pet trade and indeed some species have gone extinct, whilst others hover on the brink.

 

The acrobatics of a Central American Spider Monkey entertained the crowds.

 

Only Neotropical monkeys have prehensile tails which they can use as a fifth limb and which can support their entire weight.

 

A Tarantula on the path produced gasps of horror from the grockles but many stopped to photograph it.

 

We saw about a dozen species of woodcreeper on the tour but this one, Northern Barred Woodcreeper was one of the best.

 

Antthrushes are placed in a different family from other ‘ant-thingies’. Skulking around the forest floor with their tails cocked up like a tiny chicken, they are one of the great prizes of Neotropical birding. This is Black-faced Antthrush.

 

And here is one of the many ‘ant-thingies’ we saw on the tour, a Chestnut-backed Antbird.

 

Puffbirds are more closely related to kingfisher and jacamars than to the passerines. They have a habit of sitting still for long periods which means that once found they can be easy to photograph. White-winged Puffbirds were unusually common on this trip with up to 20 seen. Although they have quite a large Neotropical range I have never seen more than three on a trip before.

 

We only saw one species of jacamar, Rufous-tailed, but they were quite common and conspicuous.

 

Tanagers are no longer a monophyletic group, some are now placed with the cardinals, others with buntings, whilst seedeaters, saltators and even some grosbeaks have been moved into the traditional tanager family Thraupidae. This means tanagers turn up in many different places in the field guide and checklist. Fortunately this White-winged Tanager is still in Thraupidae.

 

In the afternoon we sat quietly on a little used trail and kept our eyes on a nearby stream in the hope that birds would come to bathe. We didn’t have to wait long until a couple of male Red-capped Manakins appeared.

 

We had extended views of the males (and a female) bathing ….

 

Male manakins are best known for their elaborate displays where a dominant male is ‘helped’ in a coordinated dance routine by a number of younger subordinate males. We didn’t see this with this species but we did in the related Long-tailed Manakin, but I didn’t get any decent photos.

 

Later an impressive Great Tinamou came down to drink. All tinamous are elusive and timid due to a long history of being hunted by humans and we were privileged to see one so well.

 

It’s not very often you get to photograph the undertail pattern of a tinamou.

 

A couple of Central American Agoutis also came to drink.

 

We also had time to bird around the lodge, both after lunch and before departure on the second day. This huge Iguana was entertaining ….

 

…. and we had great view of Turquoise-browed Motmot ….

 

…. one of six species of motmot we were to see on the trip. By the way motmot’s tail feathers don’t grow like this, the birds strip off the barbs with their bills to give themselves their distinctive look.

 

Of course the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Thrush (Costa Rica’s national bird) was present ….

 

…. and so was this multi-coloured Painted Bunting ….

 

…. but pride of place goes to the pair of Spectacled Owls that lived in the huge tree by the dining area ….

 

…. although there was some uncertainty among some of those present as to who actually feeds the baby!

 

On 21st March the sun will be over head at midday at the Tropic of Cancer, the latitude of Cuba or northern Mexico. On 21st June it will be overhead over the northern Amazon, however at midday in mid April its overhead in northern Costa Rica and it certainly felt like it was!

 

On route to some salt pans we stopped by the mangroves to look for Rufous-necked Wood-rail, a species that I have missed on a number of tours. It was in the heat of the day and not surprisingly we dipped.

 

 

 

We were on our way to some salt pans to look at waders (or shorebirds as they say in the New World). I took so many photos of the waders that I thought they deserved a post of their own so this will be following shortly as part five of my Costa Rican narrative.

Costa Rica part 3: The Pacific lowlands of the south-west: 05/04 – 08/04 2017.   Leave a comment

This post covers our visits to Los Cusingos, Las Cruces, Escinos Lodge and Rio Ricon, all locations in the far-south-west of Costa Rica’s Pacific slope.

 

Before we left San Isidro we birded around the hotel seeing a wide range of birds such as this Cherrie’s Tanager which is common in the south-west of the country. This male of this species is almost identical to the male Passerini’s Tanager which we saw commonly on the Caribbean slope. However the females differ and I think there are vocal and genetic differences too.

 

We headed for Los Cusingos, the former home of ornithologist Alexander Skutch. The forest surrounding his home is maintained as a reserve and his simple house which had no electricity or running water is maintained as a museum in his honour.

 

Alexander Skutch was one of the most prolific and distinguished ornithologists of all time. He lived a simple life with his English wife Pamela at Los Cusingos up until his death in 2004, eight days before his 100th birthday. He was a prolific author publishing 40 books and 200 papers, mainly on tropical birds.

 

We visited his reserve in 1981, as he knew our guide well and I was privileged to meet him and his wife. Los Cusingos (we just called it Skutch’s Finca then) was one of the few places that I visited 36 years ago that I still remembered when I returned this year.

 

Among the many species we saw were White-crowned Parrot ….

 

…. Speckle-breasted Hummingbird ….

 

…. Baird’s Trogon ….

 

…. and just as we had given up on it and were about to board the bus, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper.

 

After Los Cusingos we paid a brief visit to marshy area ….

 

…. where we saw Chiriquí Yellowthroat, a species restricted to the borders of Costa Rica and Panama.

 

From here we headed to the research centre at Las Cruces, another area that I remember from the 1981 trip. The centre has extensive gardens but also areas of mature tropical forest.

 

…. with enormous fig trees (previous photo) and stands of bamboo.

 

There were plenty of birds to add to our list such as Spot-crowned Euphonia (but you would need a magnifying glass to see the spots) ….

 

…. Charming Hummingbird (which I don’t think is quite as charming as some of the other hummers) ….

 

…. and the diminutive and recently split Mistletoe Tyrannulet.

 

In the extensive gardens where a huge selection of bromiliads and other plants are propagated ….

 

…. we saw migrants from North America like this Baltimore Oriole ….

 

…. as well as this resident male Green Honeycreeper (the females are undoubtedly green but the males look more bluish to me) ….

 

…. and best of all, the tiny and scarce Garden Emerald.

 

We took a dirt road near the Panama border to look for Panamanian species like Veraguan Mango that might just have crossed the border. It was very hot as we were now close to sea level. We had no luck with the mango but it was a very birdy area especially in the vicinity of this bridge.

 

Here we saw a good selection of waterbirds; White Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Little Blue Heron and Greater Yellowlegs are in this photo and there was quite a lot else further upstream but the setting sun produced dreadful viewing conditions.

 

Grey-breasted Martins perched on roadside wires ….

 

….nearby we had good views of  Mantled Howler Monkeys (we were to hear their howls and roars every morning in both the lowlands and on the slopes of the volcanos).

 

We saw the impressive Streaked Flycatcher ….

 

…. and a number of Bare-faced Tiger Herons were nesting in the area.

 

We also had good views of Grey-lined Hawk. For a long time it has been known that there are two different populations of ‘Grey Hawk’ in Costa Rica. The northern population (Grey Hawk) extends from the north of the country to southern USA and the southern one (Grey-lined Hawk) from SW Costa Rica to northern Argentina. Recent genetic work has confirmed what birders have long suspected, that they are two different species (this was announced in the Neotropical Birding journal under the heading of ‘no more guilt about ticking Grey-lined Hawk’).

 

We headed on to Esquinas Rainforest Lodge where for the first time on the trip we stayed at the same place for two nights. It was very hot and humid, probably the most uncomfortable conditions of the trip.

 

Good birds include this male Golden-naped Woodpecker ….

 

…. the scarce Grey-capped Flycatcher

 

… and best of all, wonderful views of this Ornate Hawk-eagle with prey, thought perhaps to be a Little Tinamou. I have seen this large eagle in flight before but have never had the chance to study this magnificent bird through a scope.

 

Nearby we saw a Purple Gallinule (not to be confused with an entirely different species in Europe that was once called Purple Gallinule but is now known as Western Swamphen).

 

The so-called ‘caiman pond’ held a Spectacled Caiman that was all of 30cm long. There was a small fence about 15cm high separating the pond from the path. When Pete stepped over the fence to get a photo a security guard came running up shouting ‘peligro‘, peligro‘!

 

A night-time excursion along the access road gave us wonderful views of this Striped Owl.

 

A pre-dawn departure the following day saw us at a bridge over the Rio Rincon. Viewing downstream was very difficult due to the early morning sun ….

 

…. but fortunately most activity was in the other direction.

 

From our elevated position we had great views of this juvenile White Ibis ….

 

…. several Green Herons ….

 

…. and Spotted Sandpipers, most like this one in full sum plum.

 

Along the bank the huge Ringed Kingfisher sat patiently ….

 

…. whilst downstream a Green Kingfisher used this stick ….

 

…. to launch its fishing forays.

 

Mangrove Swallows were common ….

 

…. as were Grey-breasted Martins.

 

But the bird we had come here to see was the exquisite Yellow-billed Cotinga. After quite a wait we saw up to eight. Most were fairly distant, appearing briefly at the tops of large trees upstream or flying past rapidly. The only one that came close enough for photographs was this female. The stunning male is pure white with a yellow bill.

 

Later we visited a nearby area of mangroves.

 

The highlights here was the subtle Mangrove Hummingbird ….

 

…. and gaudy Mangrove Warbler, a resident species that is sometimes lumped with the widespread and migratory Yellow Warbler.

 

We also had good views of Osprey ….

 

…. and the first Magnificent Frigatebirds of the trip. Back in 1981 I was desperate to see this iconic species. Of course since then I have seen many thousand but the memory of that first sighting in the Pacific lowlands is still with me.

 

 

From here we headed northwards along the Pacific coast, made a boat trip on the Rio Tarcoles and eventually reached Carara NP where we stayed for two nights. These locations will be the subject of the next post.