28 April 2014

Back to Costa Rica...late Feb.

Ever since visiting Costa Rica for the first time, rather belatedly (in my world birding career), I have been captivated by so many aspects of this unique country. It boasts a heady 25% of its land area as protected, an enviable statistic compared to most other countries on Earth, which has led many to label this country as one of the "greenest" in the world. I was gripped by their wonderful network of reserves, and just how many people seemed to be connected to the natural world, something I yearn for in so many other places where nature is simply not given the importance I feel it should be. This is a country that makes it feel normal and natural to speak of the natural world and the environment, rather than be viewed with sideward glances as some kind of militant crackpot.

I had enjoyed a fantastic trip there last year, getting nearly one hundred lifers, despite a long history of traveling in the Neotropics, and having lived in Ecuador (which has at least some overlap), for some eight years previous. Last year my focus had been, to some degree of course, to tuck into the myriad endemics available to me for the first time, mostly in Costa Rica's highlands. This time though, with few lifers on offer, and a trip with a group of friends from Texas looming, I was happy to just be there again, and soak in some new sites before the main tour. 

I spent just under a week before my tour there with fellow Tropical Birding guides Andrew Spencer and "Costa Rica" virgin, Cameron Cox. We decided to spend some time in the far northwest Pacific, dry country which offers many exciting species, coupled with extraordinary blooms of flowers in the dry season of our visit. Before Cameron arrived though, Andrew and I spent a day visiting a few sites in the mountains not too far north of San Jose, before we could head off the Pacific slope, once we had collected Cameron. We selected a couple of sites that hold productive feeders, which regularly attract a beautiful selection of birds... 

The feeders at Cinchona were devastated by an earthquake in 2009, but have since been re-built and the birds have quickly found a way back to the tropical fruits and sugar water set out for them. I re-aquainted myself with some traditional Costa Rican cooking while there, (a plate of "Casado" what else? a tasty mix of black beans, rice, salad, and, on this occasion, chicken). As we tucked in heartily to the casado we kept our itchy, "trigger" fingers never far from the shutter button on our cameras, as the birds were not forgiving; they were not going to stop eating, just because we were! The hummer feeders, of course were ever reliable, bringing in a constant stream of stunning species, which included the Costa Rican endemic, Coppery-headed Emerald, as well as the local White-bellied Mountain-Gem (photo above), and a rather camera-shy Violet Sabrewing

However, it was the spread of papaya that captured my attention most....Along with Costa Rica's undeservedly dowdy national bird (considering what other spectacular alternatives exist out there), the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrush, (photo above), there were other more colourful species in attendance too...The most surprising was a bright male Prothonotary Warbler, every bit as happy, here on its wintering grounds, to feast on fruit, as they are to feast on flies and other bugs when summer comes around in North America (photo below). I was, however, most pleased with the visit of a Prong-billed Barbet, (photo top), which happily sat on the papaya, as we marvelled in the unrivalled photo opps. with this species. These were my very first photos of this charismatic species, and I was overwhelmed with excitement at this opportunity, which had passed me by during last year's visit to the country. Just a week earlier, in Ecuador (where I now live), I had seen the only other member of this family (known as the "Toucan-Barbets"), the Toucan-Barbet, which like this species has the strange anatomical feature of a tooth-like projection on its bill.
After several enjoyable hours and a casado at Cinchona, we headed to another near reserve, Catarata del Toro, where more feeders awaited. The hummingbird horde was much the same as we had experienced at Cinchona. The hoped-for Black-bellied Hummingbird (usually regular there) was, however, absent. But the grain on the floor did attract something very worthwhile for our cameras, a super Sooty-faced Finch, (photo below), which made me plot plans for the tour soon after. At the end of a relaxed day, with shutters active, and birds filling our camera screens, we returned back to San Jose, picked up Cameron from his flight (minus his bags unfortunately), and pointed the car north, and headed to the Pacific Northwest, for some very different birds, and birding experiences indeed...