(Photos by Nancy Bell, Chuck Bell, Steven Easley)
Wed Apr 20 – Denver-San Jose
We got through formalities in record time, and Steven and Magdelana Easley of Costa Rica Gateways arrived to pick us up just a couple of minutes after we exited the customs area. We had traveled twice before with Costa Rica Gateways, last year with Steven and Magda. It was nice to have Magda with us as the four of us have a lot of fun. It is more like birding with good friends. We went directly to Casa de Kevin (Steven’s brother Kevin Easley’s home) for overnight and dined across the street with Steven and Magda at the Delicias del Maiz.
Thu Apr 21 -- To the Coast
We met for breakfast at 5:30 am and were out the door a little after 6 am. We headed down the road toward the Pacific coast, retracing our route of 3 years ago. Our first stop was the Guacimo Road to look for the Lesser Ground-cuckoo, which we had heard but could not see two years ago. We tried for it in several places and heard a few of this species. One appeared briefly on a distant bush, and Nancy saw it in the scope before it dropped. We also saw our first of several Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, which we had always missed before because we were always where it was not in its migrations between South and Central America. We came to the end of the dry, scrubby habitat as we came to the bottom of a valley with tall trees, a known habitat for Collared Forest-falcon. Soon we heard one calling and worked our way over to a corner of a clearing and discovered that there were two birds, obviously defending a nest. We had very good views of one of these two large birds. We headed back up the road, and at our second stop, we finally had a good view of the ground-cuckoo. After seeing 40 species along this road, 3 of them new, we headed up the Interamerican Highway toward Punta Morales. We went a bit beyond to bird a big farm at Solimar. It has tall trees in a park-like atmosphere near the guest house which are a preferred habitat for the Spot-breasted Oriole. We looked hard but found only Streak-backed Orioles, as well as 4 Mangrove Cuckoos and a pair of Pacific Screech-owls, which Nancy photographed. One of the owls watched her curiously for a time but then became bored, made a huge yawn, and closed its eyes.
She also photographed some Howler Monkeys resting in the branches of these tall trees. The Howler Monkey is not one of the cute monkeys. It is large, black and seems to have an unpleasant expression that goes along with its many groaning and moaning sounds! We saw 21 species of birds at this farm. We stopped near the small town of Colorado at another park-like grove of tall trees and quickly found a pair of our target Spot-breasted Oriole. We had lunch at a very good barbque place. We continued to bird around the area in the afternoon but it was extremely hot, in the 90's and not too much was moving. We stopped at a university research station and peered into the bordering mangroves on the off-chance that we might find a Rufous-necked Wood-rail. Steven played its call briefly and to our great surprise the bird strolled cautiously through the mesh of mangrove roots giving us all an excellent view. It was also a lifer for Magda. We headed back up the road to some cabinas where we were able to find space on this Easter holiday weekend. We took a cooling swim and then rested in the air conditioned room until meeting for dinner at 7 pm at the adjacent restaurant. We had sea bass covered in shrimp sauce. We then took the relatively long drive back to Punta Morales to look for a Northern Potoo, which has been seen around the research station boat dock. No potoo but a fish-bat did fly by hitting the water with its feet trying to catch a fish. We drove back to our rooms and turned in a little after 9 pm.
Fri Apr 22 – To Monteverde
We started at 5:45 am and headed east up into the mountains toward Monteverde. The road was heavy gravel and very steep in places making for some slow going. We ticked off Guanacaste birds along the way. At a quick stop along the way so Steven could "take a quick powder", Chuck saw a bird crossing the road a short distance ahead of us, which at first glance he dismissed as just another chicken in the road. But then he realized it was a wild bird. Magda gasped out "Thicket Tinamou" - another of our target birds. We bumped our way on up the dusty road to Santa Elena and Monteverde. We went to Stella's Bakery in search of breakfast but it was closed for the Easter holiday. We found an open coffee shop, but it had very little to eat so we went to a second shop, The Common Cup. It had some food and perhaps the finest-tasting coffee we have ever had. We ate and bought a pound of coffee.
We then went to the hummingbird feeders at the Monteverde Reserve. Nancy had fun photographing hummers despite the throngs of tourists that came and went. We easily saw three lifers as they visited the feeders - Magenta-throated Woodstar, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. In all, we saw 8 species of hummers. We checked in to the Hotel El Bosque before lunch. It is a comfortable mid-range mountain lodge with 28 standard rooms, all equipped with a double and a single bed, private bath and hot water. It is nestled in the forest and has attractive gardens.
We went to Morpho's for lunch - a delicious double-decker hamburger - and headed up to a road along the edge of Santa Elena Reserve. After trying a few different spots, we got rather good views of two Black-breasted Wood-quail, our fifth lifer of the day. They are small dark quail that spend their time in the shadows of the forest floor. At first it was difficult to pick them out of the darkness. Stopping at the reserve entrance, we checked out the trail we would use tomorrow down to the San Gerardo Field Station. We heard, but did not see, our first Three-wattled Bellbirds. Returning to the road where we saw the wood-quail, we waited for the sun to set to look for the Bare-shanked Screech-owl. Just after sunset, while it was still light, the owl began to call. Steven used playback, and the owl came in and perched on a branch near the road. It sat there with its wing characteristically drooping and we had spectacular looks. Nancy managed to get a passable photograph even though it was so dark.
Returning to Monteverde, we stopped for dinner at the Bohemia Restaurant. Chuck had a tasty pizza. Back at the Hotel El Bosque, as we were unpacking, Chuck saw what he thought was a rubber band that he had dropped. He reached down to pick it up but as he touched it, he realized it was a light-colored scorpion. Nancy caught it in a glass and put it outside.
Sat Apr 23: Monteverde, Santa Elena Reserve and San Gerardo
We headed out before breakfast to look for the Streak-breasted Treehunter near the entrance to the Monteverde Reserve. We tried a couple of places and to our considerable surprise this normally elusive species came right out into the open to give us very good looks. We returned to our lodgings for their excellent buffet breakfast, which included delicious fried farmer's cheese, perfectly ripe mango and very good coffee.
We packed the few things we needed for the next two days into small packs, left our luggage at the hotel office and drove to the Santa Elena Reserve. At 8:30 am, we set off down the trail through virgin forest that led to the San Gerardo Field Station. While it was quite rocky and steep in places, it was relatively easy to descend. Despite stopping to bird along the way and to enjoy the views of Arenal Volcano, we reached the field station in a little less than 2 hours. In all, we descended 1300 feet. We began to hear a Three-wattled Bellbird shortly after we began our hike, and before long we reached a spot that was sufficiently open to see the bird well through the scope in the top of a distant tree. A ways further on, we heard Azure-hooded Jay and managed to coax this beautiful but secretive bird to come near the road. Chuck spotted it inside a dark bush, and we all got good views. As we approached the field station, we heard the continuous call of the Highland Tinamou. We dropped our bags on the big front porch and crept into the thick underbrush and got a very good look at this secretive bird. Wow, 3 life birds and it was still morning! We spent the remainder of the morning enjoying the many species of birds from the upstairs balcony, from where we also overlooked Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal in the distance. Lunch was excellent and copious. We especially liked the huge bowl of guacamole.
|On the trail to San Gerardo|
|San Gerardo Field Station|
|Our room with private bath|
|The viewing balcony|
|Arenal Volcano from the balcony|
Sun Apr 24 – San Gerardo Field Station
What a place to spend Easter Sunday! The forest around us was more spiritual than any man-made cathedral could ever be. We watched the sun rise over the Arenal Volcano, steaming cups of delicious coffee in hand. Keel-billed Toucans perched in nearby treetops, Crimson-collared Tanagers flitted nearby, bellbirds honked loudly in the distance, and all seemed right with the world. Our one remaining target was the Ornate Hawk-eagle, and we decided to just wait around the lodge hoping it would appear in the sky above, as Steven had seen it do on previous visits here. We saw Swallow-tailed Kites, a Barred Hawk, and a pair of Black Hawk-eagles along with resident Turkey and Black Vultures. Finally, at 9:45 am an Ornate Hawk-eagle appeared soaring over the ridge line above us. We could see its white throat, tail banding and a little color on the neck even though it was quite high. We then decided to just rest for the remainder of the morning, enjoying the down time.
In the afternoon, we walked slowly through the cloud forest, enjoying all of its amazing life forms - ferns, mosses, huge trees, flowers, insects and the many different bird calls from forest floor up to the high canopy. We ended up around 4 pm at the place where we saw the umbrellabird yesterday. We climbed up into the forest, sat down in the thick leaf litter, and waited. By 4:45, with no bird in sight, we descended back to the trail. Then, we heard the low tone of an umbrellabird. Magda saw it over the trail, and then we realized there were 3 of these outlandish-looking rare birds right around us. We climbed quietly back up off the trail and found a bird perched on the same branch as yesterday. Only this time he was distracted by another male nearby and actually did the bobbing display motion with his brilliant red throat sack puffed out. Steven used Nancy's camera to photograph it and got some good shots. As darkness began to settle into the forest we headed quickly back up the trail to the station (there is a healthy population of both jaguar and puma in this extensive track of forest, which runs from Arenal up to Monteverde). We enjoyed another good meal - this time spaghetti for three of us and chicken cordon bleu for Nancy - cooked by Evania, who clearly loves the creative aspects of her job. As we finished with hot chocolate, we watched the many species of moths that were attracted to the window by the light.
Mon Apr 25 San Gerardo and Monteverde
We started the day on the balcony even before the coffee was ready at 6 am. It is another beautiful day. There is a big high pressure system that is stationary at least over this part of Costa Rica producing dry, hot weather rather than the usual rains. After omlettes, rice & beans, and fried bananas, washed down with fresh mango juice, we went a ways down the trail to where we had found a Slate-throated Redstart nest the night before. We stayed there more than an hour while Nancy photographed the redstarts and Chuck enjoyed all the birds in the clearing including at least a dozen nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendulas, making their bubbly calls. Steven and Magda stayed at the station.
At 9 am we returned to the station, gave our bags to Giovanni, who loaded them on his ATV, and he set off up the hill with Nancy hanging on for dear life on the back of the big seat. Chuck, Steven and Magda started up the hill on foot. Giovanni came back after dropping Nancy at the car park and picked up Chuck, then repeated the process with Steven and Magda. We headed directly to the Hotel El Bosque, checked in, did some laundry, and went over to Stella's Bakery for lunch. Then Steven dropped us at the hummingbird feeders while he and Magda took the car to a garage for repairs. Nancy enjoyed spending the afternoon photographing hummers, but Chuck got rather bored. On a short walk down the road, he lucked onto a Chiriqui Quail-dove. We walked most of the way back to the hotel before Steven and Magda came along. It had taken them all afternoon to get the car exhaust system welded. We went back to the Bohemia restaurant for dinner and turned in.
|Fulvous-bellied (or Thicket) Antpitta|
Tue Apr 26 – Monteverde to Arenal
After another good breakfast at the hotel, we headed down the long, bumpy, dusty road around the far end of Lake Arenal to the very touristy town of Fortuna. After checking in to the rather basic Hotel Jireh, we had lunch at a big barbeque place set up for big bus tours, but fortunately it was nice and quiet. After a rest in the heat of the day - and it was very hot, in the mid-90s, and humid - we headed up the road toward Arenal Observatory Hotel. We stopped along the road, walked into the dense forest and immediately heard our target Thicket Antpitta calling. It did not take us long to find it, and Steven even got some pictures with Nancy's camera. This was lifer 17 for the trip. We were feeling very fortunate so far getting nearly every target species on our list! We drove on up to this beautiful hotel with extraordinary grounds just teeming with birds. We spent a couple of hours just enjoying all the birds and giving Nancy lots of time to photograph.
|Green Honeycreeper at Arenal Observatory Hotel|
Then it was back to our hotel in Fortuna. We returned to the same barbeque place for dinner. Just as we finished eating, a powerful thunderstorm came through dumping torrents of rain and knocking out power to the town. It was the first real rain of our trip. We waited until it stopped in the now candle-lit restaurant and walked back to our hotel. The power was restored about an hour later, and thankfully that restored the air conditioning.
Wed Apr 27 – Arenal to Caňo Negro
We had a modest breakfast at the Hotel Jireh and left Fortuna about 8 am for Caño Negro. The road was paved and good. This area is primarily agricultural with large plantations of pineapple, sugar cane, oranges and beans. There is very little lowland forest left. Only the last 20 km were gravel. By the time we got to Caño Negro it was incredibly hot. My little thermometer read 100 degrees (38C). We looked in a wooded area for Gray-headed Dove with no luck. We did see a surprising number of birds, though, despite the heat. We headed for Kingfisher Lodge and Antonio came up on his bicycle with the keys to our cabins. While we were waiting, Steven heard our target dove in a big tree. He quickly found it and pointed it out to us. One down and two to go in terms of our target species here. We put our stuff in our cabins and turned on the air conditioners. We went round the corner to a small but very clean restaurant. We each had a whole lake fish nicely grilled, but at $14 each it turned out to be an expensive lunch. In fact, meals in Costa Rica seem to be much more expensive now than on our previous trips here. While resting in our cabin after lunch, the sky opened up with a gully-washer, the first rain they have had here in nearly two months. This is normally quite a wet area even in the "dry" season. The rain dropped the temperature by about 20 degrees but sent the humidity way up so it felt like a sauna outside. We drove about 15 km back the entrance road to a marsh to look for Pinnated Bittern. We did not see one but picked up lots of other interesting birds like Nicaraguan Seed-finch and Thick-billed Seedeaters, Boat-billed Heron and Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Back at the cabins, we showered and went to the neighboring hotel for a lite dinner topped off with vanilla ice cream.
Thu Apr 28 – Lake Caňo Negro, then Laguna del Lagarto
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is a part of the Arenal Huetar Norte Conservation Area, in the northern part of Costa Rica twenty kilometers south of Los Chiles near the border with Nicaragua in the Alajuela province. The refuge is a wetlands site that is home to many migratory waterfowl during part of the year, centered on Lake Caño Negro which is fed by the Frio River during the rainy season. There are no public facilities at the refuge, and the area can be explored only by boat. The forests, grasslands and marshes of the area provide shelter for various endangered species such as cougars, jaguars, tapirs and ocelots, peccary and several species of monkey (White-headed Capuchin, Mantled Howler and Geoffroy's Spider Monkey), as well as many others. In the dry season, the area is reduced to little lagoons, channels and beaches which host thousands of migratory birds of many species such as storks, spoonbills, ibis, anhingas, ducks and cormorants.
We began the day at 5:30 am when we met Antonio, who also owns the Kingfisher Lodge where we stayed, at the boat dock. He helped us aboard his 20-passenger covered sightseeing boat and we headed up the Rio Frio. Right away, we began seeing Neotropic Cormorants, Anhingas, and Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers. Magda called out "Sungrebe" and Antonio swung the boat over so we could get a good look. We continued upstream to a nesting area for our main target, the Nicaraguan Grackle. We saw several pairs in the tall grasses along the riverbank. This bird is much smaller than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle and has a big triangular tail that it carries vertically like a rudder. It spends most of the year around Lake Nicaragua but a few come across the border into this small area of Costa Rica to breed.
Continuing onward, we beached the boat and set off on foot into a vast area of rushes which at this time of year are on dry ground. We spread out and started walking through the tall dew-wet rushes in the hopes of flushing a Pinnated Bittern. To Steven's surprise, a little bird popped up, flew a few meters and dropped back out of sight. It was a Yellow-breasted Crake, a lifer not only for us but for Steven and Magda as well. Then another popped up, and then one that was darker and a little bigger with rufous on the neck, a Gray-breasted Crake, another lifer for us and Magda. These little birds kept popping as we walked through the dry marsh, ending up with 12 Yellow and 6 Gray. Extraordinary for such scarce and elusive species! Very few of Costa Rica's top listers have even seen the Yellow-breasted Crake. We were so elated with the crakes (we also saw a White-throated) that we hardly missed not finding the bittern. Possibly the crakes were concentrated here since the water levels were so very low. We suspect the mass of crakes was only a temporary event and probably would not be there once the rains arrived. On the way back to the boat we saw lots of migrating Pectoral & Least Sandpipers and hundreds of migrating Wood Storks circling high in the sky.
After our boat ride, we packed up and headed for Laguna del Lagarto, which is near Boca Tapada on the map. After hours of driving through pineapple and sugar plantations, it was refreshing to enter a remnant but large patch of primary rainforest where our lodge is situated on some old oxbows of the nearby river. After checking into our spacious room with a big veranda, we got into a canoe with lodge guide Didier and headed into a dark channel to look for Agami Heron, another target. We saw it well as it walked along the edge of the water. It is both one of the rarest herons and the most beautiful with an irridescent blue-green back. It also has a huge long bill in proportion to its relatively small size.
We then went to look for the Great Green Macaw, which has become a nemesis bird for us. We walked down the road hoping to see them in some distant almond trees. We saw some beautiful Scarlet Macaws but no Great Greens. As we climbed the driveway back up to the lodge, we heard them and hurried back a trail to where we had good looks at two lovely Great Green Macaws in a big tree behind the lodge. This gave us an extraordinary 5 lifers for the day, bringing our trip total to 23.
After dinner, we took a night walk with another lodge guide who is training caimans in the lagoon to come to his call. Quite amusing to watch a caiman come out of the water to get the chicken pieces he throws to them. One good sized caiman came up the grassy bank and followed us along the dirt road. After watching these creatures move quite quickly and devour the chicken with gusto Nancy was hesitant to turn her back as this caiman was most determined to have more chicken. Finally the guide threw some chicken into the grassy patch on the other side of the road and the caiman raced for it, and then stayed in the grasses. Another very tiny caiman responded to the guides call, but stayed in the water, and the piece of chicken was nearly as large as this baby! This little one will become very well trained started at this tender age! The guide then showed us a beautiful Red-eyed Leaf Frog with very long legs and red eyes. It had been an extraordinary day, and we fell asleep quickly despite the fact that it was still hot and humid and our room had only a small fan mounted on the wall.
Fri Apr 29 – Laguna del Lagarto
We headed back the network of forest trails at 5:30 am in search of the Olive-backed Quail-dove and the Tawny Wood Quail. Both birds are very rare and hard to see. We saw neither and didn't actually see anything else either in terms of birds. But we did enjoy the little poison-dart frogs - Black & Green, and Strawberry.
The Strawberry, AKA the Blue Jeans frog, is only the size of a fingernail! After breakfast, we returned to the forest and took a long walk to a big tree where both Scarlet and Great Green Macaws were nesting. We had beautiful but distant views. Nancy tried to take some photos but they were just too far and too high in the tree for anything but a record shot.
It was getting very hot and we returned to the lodge about 10:30 am for cold showers. At 3 pm, we went back out in the forest to look for our targets but again no luck. Part of the problem, in addition to the fact that these are exceedingly difficult species to see, is that 8 months ago a 10-minute series of microbursts hit the forest behind the lodge, snapping off huge trees halfway down their trunks. Now there are swaths of open forest where the ground cover is already 6-feet high in areas that used to be quite open under the thick canopy of primary forest. Now, visibility from the trail is nonexistant in many places. We did see two Great Tinamous cross the trail in front of us, and we watched an Agouti hop down the trail. Upon our return to the lodge, we checked the compost pit for the quail-dove. At our approach, two big Black Vultures popped out giving Steven a real fright. We had another good dinner, chatted for a bit in the large open veranda where meals are served, and went to bed.
Sat Apr 30 – Laguna del Lagarto to La Selva
We spent the early morning walking the trails again at Laguna del Lagarto, had breakfast while watching birds including Double-toothed and Mississippi Kites, then packed up and headed back the rough gravel road to the main highway at Pital. We spent an hour there while a mechanic looked at a belt problem with the car. We continued on to Puerto Viejo where we had a good lunch at Ara Ambigua, a take off on the scientific name for Great Green Macaw. We discovered the lunch Nancy was served had flour tortillas and to keep things easy she and Steven simply traded as Steven had ordered plain chicken breast. From there, it was only a short drive to La Selva, the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) research station. It is funded by a consortium of U.S. universities and has also received funds from the National Science Foundation. After a bit of downtime, and catching up on emails with wi-fi in our lodge room, we walked the trails here in search of the Olive-backed Quail-dove and Slaty-breasted Tinamou. We found neither but did see another Agami Heron, to our great surprise, as well as jacamars and trogons. Dinner in the cafeteria was quite good, a big improvement from the dormitory fare we experienced here in our two previous visits. After dinner, we took the paved trail through the forest back to our room, using our headlamps and small but powerful flashlight to check for snakes. As in previous visits, the night walk had many spiders with bright spots on their backs that shown like stars in the darkness. The guest rooms are equipped with ceiling fans which were essential in this extreme heat and humidity. And there was our own coffee pot, which we used for our early morning coffee.
Sun May 1 – La Selva
We started the day early again in our search for the tinamou and the quail-dove. We found neither. It appears rather certain that both species are now on nests and are extremely secretive. But Chuck went out on a long trek through the forest with Steven and Magda continuing the search, while Nancy stayed back around the station to photograph. Photography was rather slow. At about 10:45 am, just after Chuck, Steven and Magda got back to the cafeteria area, it began to rain. Nancy took shelter in a building on the far side of the river. When the rain let up, Chuck went off to our room to find her, a 15-minute walk each way. In the meantime, she returned to the cafeteria area and wondered where we all were. Chuck found her there when he returned. We had lunch and then took it easy in the heat until 4 pm when we checked out a nearby marsh and then walked a La Selva trail before dinner. At dinner, we were joined by Jim Zook, an American birder and bird researcher who lives in Costa Rica. He is the top Costa Rica bird lister, with more than 810 species, and he has never seen the Yellow-breasted Crake that we saw a few days ago. We enjoyed another walk in the dark back to our room looking at the insects and spiders along the way with our headlamps.
Mon May 2 – La Selva and Home
We awakened to the news via the internet that our forces finally found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. We were elated. After reading the news over coffee, we took another early morning walk in the final futile search for the tinamou and quail-dove. Then, we had breakfast in the cafeteria, returned to our room to shower and pack, and headed to the airport in San Jose, which took only about two hours. We bid farewell to Steven and Magda, as well as Kevin who came to the airport to give us some mail to post in the U.S. We had uneventful flights home, despite a very tight connection in Houston.
In all, we saw 318 species on this trip, even though neither Steven nor we were really trying to see every species encountered, attesting to what a wonderful country Costa Rica is for birding. 23 of these species were new.