Costa Rica: Natural History and Birding in Costa Rica

In October 2005, my wife, Dorothy, and I participated in a tour which concentrated on the Natural Heritage of Costa Rica. This was a tour from Odysseys Unlimited, a company which specializes in small groups. We expected up to 20 persons on this tour, but to our surprise, there were only two other persons signed up. Thus, we toured Costa Rica in a 24-seat minibus with two other tourists, both birders, a bus driver, also a birder, and a trained naturalist guide, very knowledgeable in most phases of natural history, including birds. Oliver, the naturalist guide, could tell us the plate number and bird number on that plate, in the field guide for all the common birds. The bus driver, who spoke little English, was always anxious to point new birds for us that he found.

Out trip started in San Jose, the capital, which is in a highland valley. Most of the rest of the trip was at lower altitudes in the lowland rainforests, so there were birds to be seen here that might not be available in other places we were to go. Much of the area is developed and full of urban sprawl. However, we stayed in a hotel north of downtown in a suburban area that had five to 10 acres of beautiful gardens just full of new birds. We were to spends two nights there at the start of the tour and one more at the end, so we had essentially part of three afternoons and a couple of mornings to bird here. I first saw 32 species here, including 15 life birds. Rufus-collared Sparrows and Clay-colored Robins, the national bird of Costa Rica, were everywhere on the lawns. The most spectacular bird there was the Blue-crowned Motmot. We had long, close (thorough my scope) views of a Ferruginous Pigmy Owl before dinner on the second day. Flyovers of White-tailed Kites on the last day were a highlight. We identified three species of hummingbirds, though I’m sure there must have been many more. They seemed to be everywhere among the flowering shrubs.

We spent one day touring in the San Jose area doing mostly the touristy things. The next day we were off to Tortuguero, a very small village on the northeast coast. The area is reached only by boat or small aircraft. The surrounding area is a rainforest swamp. Getting to the dock south of Tortuguero involved a 30-mile or so ride over a very rough dirt and gravel road through banana growing country. We stopped several times to see birds spotted by the guide or driver. Along the way we saw Bat Falcons and our first looks of many at Passerini’s Tananger. The boat trip into Tortugero is about two hours along rivers and canals. The lodge we stayed in was across the river from the village and was very modern. The area around the housing units was lush with tropical vegetation and the birds were everywhere. We sat in chairs on the deck watching birds constantly coming and going. Howler monkeys awakened us each morning. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, to see so many North American species that were wintering or migrating. Chestnut-sided Warblers seemed to be everywhere we went. We took several boat rides through the canals searching for wildlife. I was able to identify 69 species of birds in the area, of which 26 were life birds. Yellow-crowned Night Herons were everywhere along the canals. One of the rarest birds we saw was two sightings of Sungrebes. We saw several Northern Jacanas among the lily pads. Nine species of herons and egrets were seen, including Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Boat-billed Heron. A Laughing Falcon perched in a dead tree near the dining room thrilled us. The area is famous for its nesting Green Turtles. Though we choose not to take the nighttime walk with the National Park naturalist to see Green Turtles nesting, it was supposed to rain, we were able to observe newly-hatched turtles on the beach making their way to the sea. We were told that unless the female turtle makes this trip they would not know how to return to the beach to nest.

We left Tortuguero the way we came, by boat and rough road, on our way for a one-night stay at La Quinta country hotel near Sarapiqui. The hotel is located in the bend of a river and had extensive grounds that were good birding. Most of the surrounding area was pineapple farms. While there I observed 22 species of birds, of which seven were life birds. The Gray-necked Wood Rails were very tame, allowing fairly close approach. Also new here were Bananaquit, Orange-billed Sparrow, Buff-throated Saltater, Short-billed Pigeon and Ruddy Ground Dove.

The next morning we visited Tirimbina, a private biological preserve, where we saw three species of bats and more birds. New here were Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Melodious Blackbird, a recent invasive species from the north. Both Amazon and Green Kingfishers were in view at the same time. Our objective for the day was Chachagua Rain Forest Lodge near the town of La Fortuna. Along the way we stopped to see a spectacular display of wild Iguanas at a gift shop\restaurant where they are fed and very tame. As we approached La Fortuna the very active Arenal volcano looms into view. Later we were to observe spectacular lava flows as we stood near the base of the mountain after dark.

Chachagua was several miles off the main road up a very rough track to the very edge of the rain forest. Keel-billed Toucan We were there four nights and it wasn’t until the last day that another group joined us for dinner. We had the place to our selves when we were there. Every morning was a thrill as we could sit on the front porch of our cabin and observe birds. Every morning a Cocoa Woodcreeper worked a wooden light pole for insects that were attracted there the night before by the light. A Sulpher-rumped Flycatcher fluttered virtually at our feet gathering insects from the floor boards of our porch. We observed Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans and Collared Arcaris might be seen at any time. Great Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Tropical Peewees and Streaked Flycatchers were observed here as were Golden-hooded Tanangers, Black-stripped Sparrows, Variable Seedeaters, and Yellow-faced Grassquit. The open-sided dining building provided close view of several species of Honeycreepers, Euphonias, and Tanagers (and the local chicken) at the fresh-fruit feeding station. In the evening I heard what I think was a Pauraque, which I never could see and identify for sure and early in the morning, an owl that was probably the Black-and-white Owl. This was a spectacular place from which we took side trips. 

One day we had lunch at a local Bed and Breakfast where there were fruit feeders. We could hardly eat our lunch for the new birds that kept appearing. Green Honeycreepers and Red-legged Honeycreepers were numerous. Lineated and Hoffman’s Woodpeckers were present. Blue-Grey Tanagers were present almost everywhere we went. A yellow-throated Euphonia was special. Our stay here ended all too soon, because we were to spend the afternoon at the Arenal Hanging Bridges some distance away. This is a sometimes steep 2-mile walk through the rainforest along a mountainside crossing 15 bridges, often looking down on the forest canopy. Here we saw perhaps the bird of the trip, a Rufus-tailed Jacamar. Also spectacular were dozens of Black-crested Coquettes, a hummingbird with a long black crest. Red-lored Parrots and a Lineated Woodpecker were present in the same tree near the end of the walk. Around the parking lot were dozens and dozens of migrating Baltimore Orioles. Band-backed Wrens, Palm Tanagers and Tawny-capped Euphonias were other interesting birds. That evening observed the lava flows at the Arenal volcano and we bathed in a hot springs before a late dinner.

Back at Chachagua on our last afternoon on a walk down the read paralleling a stream we saw three species of woodpeckers, Black-cheeked, Smokey-brown and Cinnamon. Though not present here, the Hoffman's Woodpecker, much like our Red-bellied Woodpecker, was probably the most numerous woodpecker elsewhere.

Our next destination was Tamarindo on the West coast in the province of Guanacaste. But first we stopped for a rubber-raft trip down a class-two river where we saw Crocodiles and more birds. White-throated Magpie-jay Wood Storks flew overhead. Spotted Sandpipers were along the stream. An Osprey flew over as did Neotropic Cormorants. We saw Rufus-naped Wrens and a Squirrel Cuckoo. On a side-trip to an Indian village, we spotted a Harris’s Hawk, Crested Caracaras, Jabirus and Double-stripped Thicknees. In the village we had White-fronted Parrot and Masked Tityra. One morning on a walk along the beach to an estuary we identified an Agami Heron. Along the beach were Whimbrels, Royal Terns Spotted Sandpipers and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. All around the “cabins” where we stayed and around the open dining area at the Hotel Cana Luna were White-throated Magpie-Jays. Given a chance they would steal food from your plate. A trip into the Mangrove estuary yielded Mangrove Black Hawk, King Vulture, Tri-Colored Heron and Black-headed Trogan among others.

On the way back to San Jose, where our trip would end, we stopped at Sarchi for lunch. Here we had White-crowned Parrots and Brown Jays. The Montezuma Oropendolas, a large bird of the blackbird family were spectacular. Back at the same hotel where we started near San Jose we spent our last hours with our new trip friends birding until dark. It was here late in the evening when the White-tailed Kites swooped overhead and we had last-light views of the Blue-crowned Motmot. 

My total count of birds for the eleven days in Costa Rica was 177 species of which 101 were life birds. Needless to say, this was a trip that we will long remember. Early the next morning we said goodbye to our gracious bus driver and naturalist/guide as we departed for the airport and our flight home. — by Sam Sinderson

Photo Credits: Odysseys Unlimited Tour Guide

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!