31 March 2013

Gold to Finish...COSTA RICA (25 Feb)

Our final day we changed plans and went on the hunt of a hot tip - a roosting Bare-shanked Screech-Owl that was allegedly a "given". As it turned out, this was not the case, and we bumped into a bunch of local guides shaking their heads in disbelief that it was not there that day as it normally was expected to be! Having tried for this also around Savegre on two separate nights, it seemed this was fast becoming my "nemesis' for Costa Rica. However, the area near Monteverde we checked out was far from boring: we found our first Golden-bellied Flycatchers for the tour (and of course lifebirds for me), and also found our only Geoffroy's Spider-Monkeys of the tour and Highland Hepatic Tanager of the tour, which fed low in the open for some time. 

Once again, we found yet more White-eared Ground-Sparrow, which were remarkably numerous for us on the tour. However, the bird that caused us to finish on the biggest of highs was a small party of Golden-browed Chlorophonias. Although we had already encountered them twice earlier, this was just one of those, special, low sightings that make you realise the bird is yet better than both you imagined and experienced previously.

And I am sure it was from this star turn that the species made it onto our top five birds of the trip list, at a heady second no less. When you see such a beautifully-coloured bird, so well, it is hard to believe it would not make it to number one in the charts, although with the unmovable Resplendent Quetzal sitting in pole position, it was perhaps understandable on this occasion, why the chlorophonias had to settle for second place! In the final countdown, over a splendid farewell dinner back at the Hotel Bougainvillea, the final top five birds of the tour were decided:


...And a worthy top five too; it was certainly hard to argue with the choices, when looking back.

My TOUR in Costa Rica (actually Michael's tour) in Costa Rica may have come to a close, but my time in Costa Rica lingered on. Andrew Spencer and his Tayler Brooks were flying in, and we were set to meet again the next day and go in pursuit of yet more photos of Costa Rica's amazing birdlife...

30 March 2013

Attack of the Killer Hummers...COSTA RICA (24 Feb)

The feeders at Monteverde are nothing short of legendary, as if the offer of cool highland species like Orange-bellied Trogons and quetzals are not enough alone to lure you there, then the hummer feeders are worth a visit in their own right, as witnessed by the masses of non-birding tourists taking an interest, and becoming honorary birders, if only for a short time.

We visited their main feeders, just outside the park, and were literally overwhelmed with the frantic hummingbird scenes: Violet Sabrewing, the real "brute" at the feeders, with its substantial bulk and power evident relative to the other smaller hummingbirds on show,  (together with its feisty temperament), and with its dashing dress: bright violet, with striking white flashes in the tail. It is impossible not to notice, and they are common there and popular there, and for good reason. I hope the photo brings this out, as they are so different in varying light conditions and from different angles.

For company the Sabrewings were competing for the sugar water with a few Coppery-headed Emeralds (actually one of the least numerous species at these feeders, with just a handful present), one of the few Costa Rica country endemics (one of only four, if you include the endemic race/species of  Prevost's Sparrow); Green Violet-earMagenta-throated Woodstar (such a great name), Stripe-tailed HummingbirdGreen-crowned Brilliant, and Green Hermit

Although perhaps the most striking one at the feeders, bar the substantially sized sabrewing of course, were the stunning Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, both sexes of which cause you to draw breath, the female with her vibrant orange underparts, and the male with his deep iridescent purple throat. 

However, hummingbirds were not the only creatures that grabbed our attention at these feeders: a mammal came in too, and a generally scarce species too: OLINGO. This is probably one of the only regular spots for it in Costa Rica (and indeed the world-they are not easy to find in many places; I have been living in Ecuador for 7 years and this was a mammal lifer here at the feeders). This or other individuals have been visiting this same set of feeders on and off over the last few decades, but in spite of this, they are never guaranteed as their visits are erratic and unpredictable in their timing. Normally largely nocturnal it was good to see the comical behavior of this lemur-like animal as it wrestled with the feeder, for which it was clearly too big, causing havoc in the process. Then after causing quite a stir among the people gathered there, (including me, who tripped rather clumsily and rather embarrassingly, in my excitement at the opportunity to photograph it.

 In the afternoon we took a short trip into some drier forest nearer our hotel, in search of the Long-tailed Manakin...

27 March 2013

Easy birding...COSTA RICA (24 Feb)

After finally moving out of the car park at Monteverde, (once the quail-dove had decided to move on), we admired their hummer feeders for a while: Magenta-throated Woodstars flitted around excitedly but seemed vastly overpowered and outnumbered by the mighty looking Violet Sabrewings which swooped in and out more regularly, but we were to come back to another set of even more lively feeders later...

Along the forest trails it was not to admire the forest itself, massive pristine cloud forest, suitably drenched in cloud by the morning's end, with a multitude of bromeliads weighing heavy on the limbs of many of the trees, it appeared to be just brimming with life; and so it was. The most comical moment of the morning, was when an uber-tame Black Guan appeared on the path, and shortly after we had found it a tourist came blindly by, so we frantically called for him to stop for fear of flushing the bird off the track, only to see him casually stroll up to it, slip out his I-Phone and photograph it from inches away. It seems the birders were less clued up about the birds here than the "general" tourists! Another tame creature was a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush which we tried to desperately to tease into the open, only for it to hop out onto the trail in the open when we had turned our backs on it for a moment! However, the tamest bird of the morning was arguably this Slate-throated Redstart (also called Whitestart, which refers to the white in the tail), which not only perched in the open but was so confident of our lack of threat he sung repeatedly to us...There may not have been an overwhelming amount of activity but what there was, was literally in our faces!

After this it was time to immerse ourselves with the Monteverde hummingbirds...

26 March 2013

Bienvenidos a Monteverde...COSTA RICA (24 Feb)

Well, today was to be our first day in Costa Rica's flagship park: MONTEVERDE, arguably the most popular and well-known cloud forest reserve in the World. However, before we had even got there we had enjoyed a pre-breakfast pair of White-eared Ground-Sparrows (much to a few people's relief who had missed them on the opening day), and from the BUS, en-route to the park we had to "endure" close-ups of a male Orange-bellied Trogon; and then, on arriving in the park itself, our bus was prevented from parking for a good five minutes while this Buff-fronted Quail-Dove fed within our parking space. I was getting a good feeling about this place, and I had yet to set foot on its soil!

More Costa Rica cloud forest favorites to come, very soon...


The most legendary name in all of Costa Rican parks was looming on our horizon: Monteverde. However, we had a little more time around the steamy lowland jungle within Carara National Park first, where we walked a different trail and saw a different Baird's Trogon, this time a male. Although, dawn found us watching a Tiny Hawk which had recently began nest building in the area (thank you Richard Garrigues for your tip off!). After quickly adding Fiery-billed Aracari to the list we were on our way for the final fling at Carara, before we departed for higher elevations and the mist-enshrouded cloudforests of Monteverde. The trail was good that morning with Riverside Wrens giving repeated views of their smartly banded undersides, and another dapper wren, Black-bellied Wren did likewise too. However, our progress along the trail was halted by a flurry of bird activity right beside the trail: ants were swarming and the birds were following suit. Many birds, some of which are in the "antbird" family follow army ants, although not to eat the ants but prey on the various creatures fleeing the swarming ants.

...And this is exactly what we were treated to, a feeding frenzy of birds around us, that included Grey-headed Tanagers, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, Bicolored Antbirds, and flycatchers and manakins dropping by too to feast on the desperate insects. This is one of the classic tropical forest experiences, and it never gets old. The excitement is always palpable, and you never quite know what might dramatically, and suddenly, drop by (as were to find out later on this trip at another swarm-TO COME!).

Up next: MONTEVERDE...

25 March 2013

Cruisin'...COSTA RICA (22 Feb)

We enjoyed a superb, relaxing meander through the mangroves and around the mouth of the Tarcoles River, near Carara National Park. The boat had barely spluttered to life when a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron was spotted, ever-so-slowly, prowling the muddy banks-a lifebird for me right off the bat! Large, menacing, but unmoving, jaws were waiting in the shallows, which revealed a number of American Crocodiles lurking with intent to attack anything that strayed into its substantial range. 

Then  a flash of blue alerted us to a strikingly beautiful Turquoise-browed Motmot perched alongside a steep bank. The normally difficult to see Boat-billed Heron was anything but; instead of being buried within a tangle at close range, to the frustration of photographers like me on the boat, this time it just sat out in the open, unblemished and set out perfectly for photography, with it odd, swollen bill in full, glorious view. Scouring the edges eventually led us to cryptic pair of nocturnal shorebirds, the goggle-eyed Double-striped Thick-knee, which were visibly panting from the intense heat, and which shared the shore with a pair of Southern Lapwing (a bird that is still scarce, though spreading, in Costa Rica). 

Although it was a very gentle, slow cruise, and we never traveled far, we also never experienced a dull moment: Mangrove Swallows were a constant presence, sallying regularly low over the water to pick insects out of the air or to dip in the water to drink, flashing their clean white behinds as they did so. The ride finished with a meander along a mangrove-lined section of the river, where tall mangroves provide habitat for the subtle Panama Flycatcher, which was, eventually, teased out of its hiding place high in the mangrove, and a few Mangrove Warblers were also seen, along with a regular number of Common Black-Hawks, standing like sentry posts, as if "guarding" the mangrove roots from invasion from foreign enemies. A good smattering of ibis and spoonbills were seen too, with a sprinkling of northern shorebirds, down here for the season to avoid the cold Boreal winter. It was an extremely enjoyable trip, which ended with a large squadron of Lesser Nighthawks emerged at dusk to hawk around the boat dock. An extremely relaxing afternoon indeed, with several lifebirds to boot (tiger-heron & Panama Fly). 

More to come from Costa Rica soon...

24 March 2013

"Dinosaurs" & Birds...COSTA RICA (22 Feb)

After the cool mountain air, and even cooler mountain birds, we were back in sweaty country when we dropped down into the Pacific lowlands around Carara National Park. We were staying in the grand Hotel Villa Lapas, named Lapas after the Scarlet Macaws which were so prevalent in the area, we had seen them before we had even checked in. Just after check in, and before we had even a plateful of food from the dinner buffet we were feasting on an impressive, and imposing, looking pair of Spectacled Owls, perched, just outside the restaurant. My feverish looks around the hotel for a Red-eyed Tree Frog, the marquee frog species for Costa Rica, came to nothing but dejection and disappointment however!

After arriving in the late afternoon the next morning was spent walking, and sweating, our way along a super trail through gorgeous forest, where a female Baird's Trogon was found in a massive rainforest tree as we'd hoped. However, our day started right on the hotel grounds, where an unplanned, five minute, sleep-in by me, (not being the guide for the trip I had this luxury at my disposal, unlike Michael Retter, the actual tour guide for the tour), almost cost me a key regional endemic: Costa Rican Swiftlet which scythed by before I had even got out of the door to play catch up. The hotel grounds and river did though hold a Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Muscovy Duck, and a large, prehistoric-looking iguana-the mighty Ctensosaur, of which we were to see many by the end of the morning. The morning walk produced some impressive wrens-both Black-bellied and Rufous-breasted Wrens avoiding my camera lens, but filling my binoculars, at various points; although the undoubted star of the walk were several "flame-doused" male Orange-collared Manakins; simply gorgeous.

In the afternoon, we went on a river cruise, by way of a roosting Black-and-white Owl, which our driver, come secret birder/guide, led us straight to.

The river cruise highlights to come next...

16 March 2013

Hummers on Fire...COSTA RICA (20 Feb)

We ended a landmark day on the tour (i.e. scoring quetzal), by being surrounded by these guys in the cloudforest-FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD. The cloud and heavy rain moved in, although we barley noticed as we scrambled for pictures of their electric throats, and the other hummers on offer, including this male Magnificent Hummingbird which I photographed during the day at Savegre Mountain Lodge...

Much, much, much more of the "Pura Vida" to come from Costa Rica...

Flame on...COSTA RICA (20 Feb)

Aside from Costa Rica's flagship bird, the quetzal, our full day in the Savegre Valley was frankly, magical. Any first time visitor (and lister) to Costa Rica's highlands is going to be happy, as it is loaded with "Chiriqui" endemics (occurring only there and the mountains of western Panama too), which therefore produces a rush of new birds (and possibly also a "rush of blood to the head" too!) This day therefore produced a significant bounce to the bird list. The other nice thing about highland birding, is it is generally easy, and many new birds came to us thick and fast and simply posed in front of us at length. This Flame-throated Warbler exemplified this situation, as it dared us not to see it, it was so damned close. On any other, normal, day, this would have been the standout moment of the day; however, this was no ordinary day, and sharing the limelight with one of the World's greatest birds-the quetzal-is no easy task, even this stunning little bird simply never had a chance!

As well as this frollicking "Flamethroat"; we picked up a number of Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers (including a pair nesting in the lodge grounds); watched Ruddy Treerunners behaving as if they should be renamed "treehuggers"; gasped at the dashing beauty of another endemic in the form of the super Spangle-cheeked Tanager (every bit as beautiful as this romantic name suggests); and marvelled at the more simple, traditional beauty of the Flame-colored Tanagers visiting our lodge feeders with Acorn Woodpeckers as support. There was plenty to write home about, and the day was far from over; I have not even mentioned the hummingbirds yet, which always excel themselves, as far as most birders are concerned...more from the hummers later!

Another (or more) Savegre update(s) to come...

15 March 2013

"Quetzaling"...COSTA RICA (20 Feb)

QUETZALING: This is a term coined for those who have ever stayed in the Savegre Valley in Costa Rica, for the principal (indeed, perhaps, only), activity undertaken in the area, searching for the dazzling Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica's premier "pin-up" bird. Not even the Page 3 girls of The Sun newspaper in Britain get this much attention! We awoke all too familiar of what our main goal was of the day-to see one of these legendary beauties. If we needed reminding this was THE place to see it, there were reminders all around us: the lodge store stocked quetzal postcards, and nick-nacks; the walls of the lodge restaurant were adorned with artwork and glorious photos paying homage to this unforgettable cloudforest bird; and virtually every lodge dotted about the valley had a quetzal decorating their sign; on top of that, the word quetzal seemed to emanate from every dinner/breakfast conversation. If you were not focused and obsessed with catching up with one of these ethereal creatures when you arrived within the valley, it seemed everyone within the valley was trying to ensure you left with this as a life goal; and it was working. We were all focused, or indeed obsessed at finding a male quetzal with its long, wispy, emerald green upper tail coverts blowing the breeze below him, seducing our visual senses with his incredible beauty, and dreamy looks. 

Finally. mid-morning, and after one failed nest stake-out, we found them; yes them. A pair of these exquisite birds (that I believe absolutely no one would deny of a place in their personal top ten birds on the planet), were found, and indeed bathed in the narrow mountain stream, before returning to a ,ore typically high perch and lighting up the forest (and our minds and hearts) as they glowed scarlet and malachite under the glow of the mid-morning sun. Before we knew it we were watching it with a collection of people: word had spread quick there was a quetzal in town, and no was was wasting anytime in getting there and revelling in the moment. It may have been not even half way into the trip, although the sheer beauty of the bird, the super, slow, seductively long looks we had, ensured right then and there, no matter what we saw later, it could never trump such a moment! Quite simply there are not enough words to sum up a quetzal, but just know it has been on the human mind for some time, being depicted in the many artwork dating back hundreds of years, and even forms the currency of Guatemala. 

It should have all been downhill from there, although we had plenty left to see in the endemic-rich highlands, and so, with the quetzal happily seen, and seen well, we could move on and chase the many others we were hoping for...

More from Costa Rica very soon...

14 March 2013

As dusk falls...COSTA RICA (19 Feb)

Arriving very late in the afternoon at Savegre, we had just enough time to check out the hummer feeders, check off a few lifers, and then tuck into another tasty buffet with Lasano sauce on hand, as ever, to dowse over the, ever-present, rice and beans. 

However, post-dinner, a few hardy soles, who were not run down from the long journey took a night foray up the valley in search of nightbirds. Scott and Linda were keen and so were Michael Retter (the tour leader for this tour), and I. We had a tip off from Nick Athanas-who had recently been guiding in the area-about a certain spot for Dusky Nightjar, and as we arrived our hearts sunk as it darted off the dirt track and disappeared into the bush, before we had really even got a glimpse. Once again though, our driver Dennis came to the rescue and took us to a light nearby, where two absurdly tolerant Dusky Nightjars blinked back at us in the spotlight. Too easy as the Aussies would say! Not so though for the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl which called excitedly and then fell silent and refused to advance onto our lists. I would save that for another day; however, we were all pleased as punch to get this endemic nightjar, confined to the Chiriqui highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama.

We descended into a sleep with dreams of quetzals, as we were in one of the most famous places on the planet for this marquee bird....

12 March 2013

La Selva (Costa Rica)...18 Feb

My second day of birding in Costa Rica may not have lived up to the first-pretty difficult when you get a Snowcap on the first day though-but La Selva's clearing was, as ever, bustling with activity: the shrubs with berries attracted Black-faced Grosbeak, the gorgeous Golden-hooded Tanager (which I have only just appreciated for its looks after these spectacular low looks at them that are not possible elsewhere), and Olive-backed Euphonia. While the football field (soccer to Americans!) was not the place I expected to see a punky male Great Currassow...

More from Costa Rica very, very soon...

10 March 2013

Pura Vida! COSTA RICA (17 Feb.)

I have spent the best part of the last 15 years birding in the tropics, seven of which have been spent living in Ecuador. However, in spite of this there has been a massive gap on my travel/birding list that seemed to be all the more glaring each year that passed: Costa Rica. I had never had the chance to go there, and see for myself why so many people wax lyrical about it. And so when the opportunity came to join the Tropical Birding tour being led by Michael Retter I jumped at the chance; I warned Michael, jumped on to a plane to San Jose, and my great Centra American adventure began. My plan was to join the Introtour for Tropical Birding, then spend a further week or more scouting further sites and species with fellow "Tropical Birder" Andrew Spencer and his girlfriend, manic sound recordist Tayler Brooks, before re-uniting with Michael Retter in Panama City for a leg in that country too.

Our first morning's birding in Costa Rica was manic, and quickly made me think, "I am gonna like this place; a lot". A short stroll around the lavish gardens of our hotel just outside the capital, produced a trio of Blue-crowned Motmots whooping from the trees, Rufous-naped Wrens were so tame they challenged me not to walk away with wonderful photos, and our major target, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, helpfully bounced out of one of the hedgerows and onto our life lists just in time before the doors for breakfast opened.

After this frantic start in what is the most depauperate part of Costa Rica, the Central Valley, we headed north out of there to the middle elevations of the Caribbean Slope, and Braulio Carrillo National Park, which Michael warned us might just be the hardest birding on this Introtour. Tall trees and dense foliage often providing a substantial barrier to the many avian treasures hidden within this park, which lies just an hour from the Costa Rican capital. However, we needn't have worried. The first bird we saw as we entered the trail was a Dull-mantled Antbird hopping around in the open on some stream-side rocks; not normal for this rainforest skulker! Next up was a very responsive Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush which sung back at us from eye level. A Black-thighed Grosbeak hiding out close to the distinctly more common Black-faced Grosbeak was a nice surprise there too. Once the trail fell quiet as the heat of the day approached fast, we emerged from the forest, drove 2km and settled in next to a purple-blooming bank of Porterweed and admired a heady collection of hummingbirds fighting over the nectar crop. Most prominent were Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, although shortly after a deep purple bird with a gleaming white "snowcap" appeared: the legendary Snowcap hummingbird. This calmed everyone's nerves, as this was our best shot, and some were at least banking on this bird for the trip. Then a large dark hummer hiding in the shadows revealed its bright red feet, and led us to its identity: Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer (both of these were lifers, BUT I was looking for one more notable hummer for the day)...It did not take much longer before the shout went up-tiny hummer at the Porterweed. We checked the back, and there was a clear white band strapped across the rump, and fine plumes of black feathers making a punky crest; there was not mistaking the star of this show, the Black-crested Coquette!

After this super opening to our time in Costa Rica we got some refreshments and headed further north into the lowlands of the Carribbean slope, and the La Selva Biological Station, a center for tropical research and a legendary birding spot in its own right...