In the middle of January, my wife, two other couples and I made a 12-day trip to Costa Rica, following by a few months the billions of North American birds that migrated south for the winter.
Waiting to pick up our rental van near the San José Airport, we saw some birds flitting in a few trees adjacent to the building. And our first birds of our trip were . . . . Chestnut-sided Warblers, Tennessee Warblers and a bright male Baltimore Oriole. Not the exotic tropical species were we expecting!
Those three species were the first of many Neotropical migrants we would see on our trip. We tend to think of Chestnut-sided Warblers and Baltimore Orioles as “our” North American birds. But they spend less of the year in North America than they do in tropical areas. We get them on loan for the breeding season.
We spent our first night at the Hotel Bougainvillea, north of the airport. The ten acres of gardens there were delightful for a pre-breakfast bird walk. Clay-colored Thrushes, the national bird of Costa Rica, were common. Other highlights were Lesson’s Motmots, Crimson-ringed Parakeets and some old friends, three Yellow Warblers.
On to the La Selva Biological Station in northeastern Costa Rica, a center of rain forest research in the New World tropics. We took advantage of the extensive trail system there for a glorious three days.
Neotropical migrants included Broad-winged Hawks, House Wrens, Wood Thrushes, abundant Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Summer Tanagers.
Toucans were abundant, loud and easy to see. We found three species: Yellow-fronted Toucan, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari.
We saw small flocks of Great Green Macaws in flight several times and once had the delight of watching two perched macaws through a spotting scope. Fewer than 300 individuals of this species exist today.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Steely-vented Hummingbirds were the most common hummers. We also had great looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar. This woodpecker relative has a long, thin bill for capturing insects on the wing. It looks like a giant hummingbird!
We had the pleasure of seeing a number of Green Ibis. They are so different from the Glossy Ibis that nest along the southern Maine coast. Glossies are rather quiet birds, sedately probing in the mud with their long decurved bills.
Green Ibises like to perch in treetops and they are extremely vocal, giving an accelerating hooting call. They are most active at dawn and dusk.
Numerous species of tanagers delighted us, each gaudy and spectacular in its own way. But sometimes, an understated appearance can be the most beautiful. For me, that applies to the Snowy Cotingas we saw: white (male) or light gray(female) feathering with a dark eye and bill. Stunning birds!
We had long looks at a perched Rufous Motmot. Another beautiful bird with subtle coloration.
Birds of prey included a Semiplumbeous Hawk, a Gray-headed Kite and a Laughing Falcon (whose call really does sound like a person laughing).
On our final afternoon at La Selva, we signed up for a boat tour of the Rio Sarapiquí that flows through La Selva.
Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Great Blue Herons and Little Blue Herons were foraging on the banks. Most of the swallows wheeling overhead were familiar Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Some had gray rumps indicating a different species, Southern Rough-winged Swallows. A few Mangrove Swallows with their blue-green upperparts were mixed in.
Our guide spied a well-hidden Green Kingfisher, only 7.5 inches in length. A delightful imp! We also had a good view of the much larger Amazon Kingfisher.
We had a brief view of a soaring bird that came back into view for a good look. It was a King Vulture. We knew it was a particularly good sighting because our tour guide was so excited to see it.
We saw several Anhingas as well.
We departed westward from the tropical rain forests in La Selva to higher elevation. En route, we passed many cow pastures with Cattle Egrets, Great-tailed Grackles and an occasional Crested Caracara consorting with the bovines.
Ultimately, we arrived at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The lodge is at the base of the Arenal Volcano, the youngest and most active volcano in Costa Rica. Standing nearly, 5,400 feet high, this cone-shaped volcano is a wonder to behold. Steam and other gases emanate from several craters. The last eruption was in 2010.
The lodge has an expansive deck with chairs with a full view of the volcano. It’s also a great platform for birding. A fig tree only 30 feet away is a magnet for many fruit-eating birds. The lodge staff also puts out fruit on a large feeder to attract birds.
The highlight was the diversity of tanagers, each seemingly more colorful and beautiful than the next. You can get an idea of the colors from the names: Blue-gray Tanager, Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and my favorite, the Bay-headed Tanager.
Montezuma’s Oropendolas, large members of the blackbird family, were abundant. The males continually performed their bow display.
From a perch on a branch, a male rotates on the perch to put its head down and tail sticking up, all the while giving a distinctive, loud metallic gurgle.
From the deck we had great looks at a Great Curassow, a distinctive ground-dwelling bird as well as a Black-and-white Becard.
Delightful long-nosed coatis, a raccoon relative, roamed around in small packs.
We hired a guide to take us on an early morning bird walk along some of the many trails and roads of the Lodge property. The highlight was a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Our guide had not seen one at Arenal in over a year. Other goodies included a Laughing Falcon, a Violet-headed Hummingbird, Blue-black Grosbeaks and a Black-cowled Oriole.
We departed Arenal for three days in Monteverde, one of the most popular birding sites in Costa Rica. This area has some large tracts of cloud forest with a distinctive bird fauna.
We hired a guide for a morning walk. Usually the cloud forest is foggy with water dripping from the trees. For our walk, the weather was clear and dry.
We enjoyed the beautiful songs of Ochraceous Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, eventually getting a good look at each. An Azure-hooded Jay gave us great looks. Slate-throated Redstarts, mostly yellow and black, darted around at eye-level.
We heard the dry trill of a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, a small songbird that mostly forages on the forest floor. Our guide told us that seeing one of these birds is extremely difficult.
The highlight of the walk was a sighting of a male Resplendent Quetzal. The male we saw was perched in the top of an avocado tree, calmly digesting a meal of avocados.
The word spread quickly about the quetzal and many tour groups converged. Everyone got a good view through a spotting scope. With an iridescent emerald-green head, back and chest, red belly and a long tail with green and white feathers, this species is the most beautiful bird I have ever seen. The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala as well as the name of their currency.
We also had a fine look at a Lesson’s Motmot high overhead.
Some of us went on an afternoon walk on our own. I saw a bird flitting about on the ground. It was a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. I was ecstatic!
At the Café Calibri just outside the reserve, hummingbirds visit the many feeders hanging there. We saw seven species including the stunning Violet Sabrewing and Green Hermit. Bananaquits, currently classified into the tanager family, competed for their chance at the sugar water.