Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Columbus Motmots Explore Costa Rica

This post is based on an article I've just sent off to the Song Sparrow, which is the newsletter of the Columbus Audubon Society. That article also has some extra stuff from Dave Horn and I've modified this one to make it more personal and add a few more photos.

The Columbus Motmots are a group of friends (including me and John) who have just returned from a “relaxed” birding trip to Costa Rica. Most days began soon after dawn with a bird walk. We took walks or trips in the morning and late afternoon, but after lunch most of us avoided the heat by taking a siesta or a dip in the pool (except for the mad butterfly hunters who made chase amongst the vividly coloured tropical flowers). After dark we would meet to compile our daily list and later there were evening rambles to seek out moths, amphibians and reptiles.

This trip was organized for us by Cotinga Tours and our guide was co-owner Paco Madrigal, who gave a talk in Columbus a couple of years ago. Paco and Carlos, our super bus driver, took great care of us throughout the two week adventure. Both men kept a keen lookout as we travelled along. When they spotted something interesting (mostly birds, but also rattlesnakes, monkeys, sloths, iguanas, turtles, crocodiles, etc.) they would quickly stop the bus, set up the scope, and we’d all pile out to see it. Paco can spot birds when no-one else can, identify them and set up a scope in the wink of an eye! Carlos was pretty good too!

The first region visited by the whole group was the central mountains. At 10,000ft, beside the Savegre River and in the cool cloud forest, we searched for Resplendent Quetzals. It took a while, but we were finally rewarded with really good views. Other highlights of this region included lots of hummingbirds (especially Fiery-throated, Magnificent, and Volcano Hummingbirds, Green Violet-ear and White-throated Mountain-Gem - what a delight!), lying on our backs watching the Swallow-tailed Kites circle overhead and some spectacularly-colorful species such as Flame-colored Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Sulfur-winged Parakeet and Collared Trogon.

Dropping down to the Pacific coastal lowlands, we were lucky enough to see Double-toothed Kite, Crested Guan, Baird’s Trogon and yet more hummingbirds in Carara National Park. A highlight of this stay was a boat trip on the Orotina River where we were treated to great views of Turquoise-browed Motmot, many herons (including Bare-throated Tiger-Herons) and Amazon Kingfisher.

Moving further north along the Pacific coast, we found ourselves in the dry forest of Guanacaste, where we had our first encounter with Howler Monkeys. These guys make strange, grunting, moaning howls, especially in the very early morning! This is a region of deciduous tropical forest as the trees here shed their leaves during the dry season. We stayed on a large hacienda and visited marshes, lagoons and salt ponds. Among the treats at this location were Jabiru, Snail Kite, Yellow-naped Parrot, Passerini’s Tanager and Laughing Falcon. One of the lagoons was crowded with a large, noisy mixed flock of water birds including Jacanas, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

It was really hot and humid in the lowlands, so it was a relief to climb up into the mountains again. We stayed at the Arenal Volcano Observatory where we could lie in bed and watch the volcano spitting out boulders and steam! Our only tropical downpour caught us just as most of the party had descended a steep flight of steps to see a waterfall but it brought out the fireflies in the evening, so it wasn’t all bad!

The lovely gardens of the Observatory were teaming with wildlife. White-necked Jacobins, Black-crested Coquettes and Bananaquits flocked to the Jamaican vervain plants, and when fruit was put out on the bird feeders we were able to admire Montezuma’s Oropendulas, various tanagers and both Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers. The feeders were also raided by two tropical members of the raccoon family – Kinkajou and Coati.

Crossing the mountainous backbone of the country, we descended to the Caribbean lowlands. We lodged by the Serapiqui river and on our early morning walk were treated to great views of the elusive Great Tinamou. We visited the famous La Selva Biological Station, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies where we found White-winged Becard, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons and Pygmy Kingfisher. A boat trip on the Serapiqui river yielded Bay Wren, Green Ibis and, for some, King Vulture.

Our final stop of the trip was at Tortuguero. This village is on the Caribbean coast and only accessible by boat. In fact, we spent most of our stay in boats as we explored the rivers and canals of this region. Paco explained that the land was too swampy for people to explore on foot. Here we found the smaller Caimans, Howler, Spider and White-faced Monkeys, turtles, Red-eyed Tree-Frogs, Poison Dart Frogs and a host of interesting birds including White-faced Puffbird, Green-Rufous Kingfisher, Great Potoo and a splendid Agami Heron.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. The group as a whole saw more than 350 species. John wrote:

I have finally got around to finishing my bird list for Costa Rica. (I delay gratification with impunity!). Overall, I saw 291 species (meaning I saw their field marks and stand some chance of identifying them again on my own), of which 212 (73%) were life birds. Joan and I had never been to Central America before
and had only limited experience birding in the south-west of the US - hence the
high percentage of new birds.

Good food and lodgings, excellent company, a skilful bus driver and a superb guide combined to make this a holiday we’ll never forget. I would unreservedly recommend Cotinga Tours to anyone.

More photos can be found on my Picassa web space.

Feel free to send me e-mail when you have time!