Monday, April 7, 2014

Costa Rica - My First Taste of the Tropics

I just got back from my 9-day spring break trip to Costa Rica, and I must say it exceeded my expectations.  Not only was the birding extraordinary (172 species total), the food was excellent, and the ticos showed us incredible hospitality.  It was so birdy, I have no choice but to split the trip up into several posts - mostly because no one wants to read a blog post a mile and a half long.  So here it goes... ¡Pura Vida!

Like most visitors to Costa Rica, we arrived in San Jose, the capital and largest city.  Our hotel there had extensive gardens, which gave me a small sample of the incredible avian diversity of this small Central American nation sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama.  I was surrounded by alien bird calls - wonky-sounding robins (which I found to be the national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush), new doves cooing, and the weezy voice of the stunning Blue-gray Tanager - all birds that would become familiar friends by the end of the week.  Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds buzzed around, and the North American-breeding Orchard and Baltimore Orioles filled the gardens with a potent dose of naranja.  I spotted a Grayish Saltator in the brush, and while pursuing it a Blue-crowned Motmot flew right over my head.  Motmots were one of my "must-see" species on this trip (more on motmots, including photos, to come later...) To think - all these birds were in the garden behind the Hotel Bougainvillea!  What was out there waiting in the rainforest?
Blue-gray Tanager - Even though it's UNC blue, I still love this bird.
That night at the hotel, I heard a few Common Pauraques singing outside the open window.  I decided that I will not count heard-onlys outside of the ABA area because I'm less familiar with the vocalizations.  So Common Pauraque will still evade my life list, as would countless other birds on this trip (Prong-billed Barbet and Great Tinamou were the most painful).  

The next day was primarily a transportation day, driving east from the Central Valley to the Caribbean Coast, and Tortuguero National Park.  En route, we stopped at La Selva Biological Station, located on the humid Caribbean Slope just below the cordillera.  It was a bizarre new world.  My binoculars and camera fogged up as soon as I stepped out of the car, which was a shame - a jaw-dropping male Passerini's Tanager was perched just feet away.  Luckily, I got a second shot at the bird an hour or so later.
Passerini's Tanager - a common sight in the Caribbean lowlands.
La Selva seemed like a birding wonderland (although it would pale in comparison to my experiences at Tortuguero and Monteverde later in the week.). Lifers were all around me.  Almost immediately, a Gartered Trogon and a nesting Black-cheeked Woodpecker came into view.  A Buff-rumped Warbler dashed along the trail as a massive turkey-like Crested Guan foraged in the treetops.  The guan's cousin, the Great Curassow, was displaying on the forest floor, sending out a deep, resonating "mmmpphh" that seemed to shake the earth.  We also found a beautiful Rufous Motmot, a bird that digs mud out of embankments to construct it's nest.  From the the main suspension bridge we spotted the aptly-named Bright-rumped Attila, as well as a male Sungrebe foraging in the river next to a Caiman (dangerous?).  Other non-avian animals crawled along as well, including Peccaries and bright red Poison Dart Frogs.
Black-cheeked Woodpecker 
Gartered (formerly Violaceous, before a split) Trogon
Rufous Motmot
We said goodbye to La Selva and continued our journey east.  It wasn't long before the pavement ended and we were on a bumpy gravel road headed to Tortuguero.  Every tico we met told us this road cutting through banana plantations was just a "free massage", but it wasn't exactly enjoyable (or relaxing).  There were a good number of birds in the fields, including an amazing Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, as well as flocks of Groove-billed Anis, the cuckoo's grackle-like cousin.  There was also a Two-toed Sloth just chillin' on a barbed wire fence - not exactly comfortable, but sloths are strange I guess.
I don't even know what to say here.  Perezosos, mae.
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron foraging in the fields - another one of those four-word Neotropical bird names.
Not long after, we finally arrived at the end of the road.  For the next three days, our transportation would be by boat only.  Tortuguero is crisscrossed by a series of caños (a slough or a swampy creek), canals, and rivers, making boats the best way to access the park's diverse wildlife.  It was a two-hour ride up to our destination, Tortuga Lodge - including frequent stops along the way.  Northern Jaçanas, Purple Gallinules, and Black-necked Stilts foraged along the shore, and an Amazon Kingfisher sat on a power line staring into the water for prey.  Our boat driver Luis spotted several Green Ibis roosting high in a snag - my 400th life bird!  We also saw a troop of Spider Monkeys and a female Great Curassow from the canal.
Purple Gallinule - a really pretty coot.
A slightly-menacing Great Curassow
A no-good photo of the Green Ibis - lifer #400
As we pulled up to the lodge at last, we spotted two toucans - one Keel-billed, the other Black-mandibled - perched in a tree.  It was nice to see these two stunning species side-by-side - the last birds of the day.  The next few days in the park would exceed all expectations, but for now I could be happy with the 50 or so lifers I had gotten in just two short days in this tropical paradise.

Keel-billed (top) and Black-mandibled (bottom) Toucans.  


  1. My favorite picture--the black-cheeked woodpecker...although the toucans are pretty cool too.

  2. Thanks... that woodpecker sure was cooperative! But the toucans were top on my list of "birds to see" in Costa Rica, so they were certainly a nice sight.