21 March 2015

The Music of the Night....COSTA RICA (26th Feb.)

This day was spent at the classic lowland rainforest site of La Selva, which offers some of the easiest jungle birding outside of northeast Queensland (Australia). The day was packed with goodies like Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, an Ariel white Snowy Cotinga, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, White-collared Manakin, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, and loads more besides. Although I will remember this more for the "creatures of the night". Smarting after shooting blanks the night before, as it were, in regards to finding owls, on this day we crossed the Stone Bridge, and set out into the primary forest for owls. We had a hot tip from one of the local guides and so hurried to the spot, and I shuffled to the call of Vermiculated Screech-Owl on my trusty I-pod. 

Five minutes passed, and it seemed no one was home, but then a soft, muffled version of the call came from the jungle. A further five minutes passed and it was clear that the bird was remaining sat close, but out of sight of the trail. I walked in a little and found the birding sitting completely in the open, where it remained, and even called in full view of us. With our good fortune we decided to look around the area for any other owls, and quickly (within 5 mins) heard another, gruffer owl call...a Mottled Owl. Just 5 minutes post-screech-owl, this considerably larger owl was locked in our bins too! Due to a fortuitous encounter with Guy Dutson earlier that evening, as we headed back across the Stone Bridge we found "his" roosting Great Tinamou, and on the way back to the cabins stopped in/twitched a Central American Fer-de-Lance sat beside the trail, looking every bit as dangerous as it is!

It was a memorable night in Costa Rica's jungles....

19 March 2015

Waiting for Snow...COSTA RICA (25th Feb.)

...Now that is not something that many can claim on the eastern seaboard of the United States this year! But, more of that later.

Having bagged 7 Fiery-billed Aracaris and a Spot-breasted Oriole pre-breakfast, post-breakfast we drove into the Caribbean foothills, and Braulio Carrillo National Park. With our delayed departure from the Central Valley, delayed because of an exciting onslaught of birds, we did not roll into Braulio until the "poor birding time" of nearly 11am. I was not that hopeful of a bumper crop, with our late arrival, but decided that John and I would walk the famous Las Palmas trail. While John and I walked the trail, Pablo, my co-guide and bird photography fiend, went with John's wife, Irene, to enjoy the El Tapir Hummingbird Garden, just a few kilometers away.

As John and I entered the trail a Buff-rumped Warbler flitted on and off the trail, but the most noteworthy thing was the sheer lack of bird sounds; it felt like the birds had already left the building. The trail is only 1.6km long, so we figured, worst-come-the-worst, we would reach the other end in no time. John and I entered the trails without our cameras, a little laziness, and ominous clouds overhead leading us to this decision; a decision we were to regret dearly. Not only did we get no rain, but we got lots of birds, some very photogenic indeed. The first sign that things were going to work out was a Dull-mantled Antbird that showed very well on our first leg of the trail, then we hit several feeding flocks that created excitement with what they held within; the first of these held a Brown-billed Scythebill, a male White-throated Shrike-Tanager that sat at eye level for 5 whole minutes, several Carmiol's (Olive) Tanager, and Streak-crowned Antvireo and Checker-throated Antwren within the understorey component of the same flock. A little off trail work was required to locate a softly-spoken Song Wren too. Continuing on around the trail we walked into my nemesis bird, and a wonderful lifer right around lunchtime: a pair of Lattice-tailed Trogons, which could have been well photographed, were it not for my foolish lack of camera! On the way out we also walked up to a Crested Guan that glared down at us as it wolfed down fruits, and saw three Stripe-breasted Wrens too.

With our late arrival, and late lunchtime, we ate lunch and then returned to El Tapir, so that John and I could see some of what Irene and Pablo had seen during the morning. The unnerving news was that they had NOT seen a Snowcap, a hummingbird for which our visit there was crucial. However, we returned in the hope that it might pop up on one of the flowering Verbenas while we were there. While we waited for the arrival of snow, John and I set about catching up on some of the birds that were seen there during the morning: Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer flew in (photo immediately above), revealed its bright red feet and left; Green Thorntails flitted in and out of the verbenas, all the while being chased off by the aggressive resident Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds; the male Black-crested Coquette, perhaps as it is so tiny and so sneaky, flew in several times and avoided the usual vicious attacks. In the trees overhead we racked up Passerini's Tanagers, and better still, Black-and-yellow Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak, and (for me at least), a male Tawny-capped Euphonia. The afternoon though was wearing on, and we still were without snow, and we still had to make our way another hour down into La Selva before the day was out. Tensions were high when the sun began to ail around 4:30PM, and even I was thinking that we might have to leave this bird behind, when Pablo shouted "S-N-O-W-C-A-P", and before we knew it there it was, a tiny hummingbird daubed in deep purple, and capped with a crisp white "Snowcap"! This bird is not only desirable for its rarity and endemic status (it is a regional endemic found from Honduras to west Panama, but is most gettable in Costa Rica), it just looks, and sounds good.

With the day wearing on, and snowcap bagged, we headed straight for La Selva, getting there with very little time to bird by the time of our late afternoon arrival. However, that did not stop is from adding Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Collared Aracari before darkness took over.

17 March 2015

Fire in the Valley...COSTA RICA (24-25 Feb.)

Costa Rica is a country where it feels like it is bursting at the seams with birding sites. Thus, on this short visit I squeezed in some new ones to me, and expanded my arsenal of Costa Rican birding experience in the process! I had found out about a hotel near the airport, and wished to check it out for future tours there-Hotel Robledal (Hotel Robledal) . This could not have gone better; I knew there were some birds to be seen on the grounds, but that was about it. I arrived in the country with Pablo Cervantes Daza, and over my first dinner there discovered they even had a bird guide on their reception (Emmanuel Guzman). So we hired his fantastic services for several hours at the start of our tour. 
Generally speaking, we have not traditionally done a whole lot of birding in the Central Valley (where the airport, and this nearby hotel are located) on the tours I have been part of, as we either have not had time, or are covering some of the birds in other areas later on the tour (if, for example, visiting the dry North Pacific, many of the birds can be found there), However, on this tour we found ourselves with some hours to spare, and, as we were not visiting the North Pacific, knew that this may provide an ample boost to our bird list. We were not wrong; we enjoyed a splendid time birding in and around our hotel. The start finds within the confines of these small hotel grounds were no less than 2 species of owl;  1 by day (Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl), 1 by night (Tropical Screech-Owl). 

Amazingly, during our first few hours there, in a single afternoon/evening, we had a total of THREE owl species; these two on the grounds, and a fluffy young Striped Owl on a finca (or farm) nearby. Also on that first afternoon, around the same finca, were a showy Striped Cuckoo, a few Stripe-headed Sparrows, a single "striped-up" female Green-breasted Mango, a few spritely Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and even a covey of Crested Bobwhite (which flushed before I could really count them on my lifelist), among the more common fare like Great Kiskadees and wintering boreal birds like Baltimore Orioles and Tennessee Warblers.
It was a stunning opener, but if anything, the next morning's hour and half in and near the hotel was better yet; it opened with a jaffa-orange Spot-breasted Oriole singing in the hotel garden; we then moved on to a lake with Northern Jacanas and Purple Gallinules plowed the edges, while in the woodland alongside we found a male Gartered Trogon, Masked Tityra, Plain-capped Starthroat, and Steely-vented Hummingbird. We moved a little away from the wetland into the dry wooded hills, and things really went crazy, with bird activity at fever pitch. A flurry of activity included lots of birds in and around the same trees, perhaps goaded by a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (our second in 24 hours) in the area: male Rose-throated Becard appeared with its crest raised; Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet did the same, two species of vireo then appeared (Yellow-throated and Philadelphia); then a male Streak-backed Oriole popped up too to complete a fine brace of orioles for the morning; then a Blue Grosbeak appeared, hot on the heels of a Summer Tanager, before a troop of toucans made us drop everything, and literally, run full pelt towards them. 
There in an open tree above us a group of 7 Fiery-billed Aracaris plundered the fruit crop, while other birds continued to swirl all around. Before we had to head back the hotel for breakfast we notched up more Stripe-headed Sparrows and a pair of roadside Blue-crowned Motmots....

The day was only a few hours old and we had racked up quite the list; before the end of the day we were to climb into the foothills of the Caribbean slope, to visit Braulio Carrillo National Park and El Tapir hummingbird gardens, and then move further down into the steamy lowland jungle of La Selva...This packed in not only numerous sites, but numerous birds into our day...

16 March 2015

Nature's Pavilion....COSTA RICA (23rd Feb.)

My first of three tours this year in Costa Rica was due to start on 24th February; thus, I could not resist nipping over to Costa Rica early and checking out some new spots. Costa Rica, and its myriad birding and photography possibilities are well documented, and that is one of the problems of going there. On each and every visit, in this "sanctuary country" for so many species (Costa Rica has around 28% land area which is under strict protection for conservation purposes, the largest percentage of any country on Earth), you find out about new places to go and bird or photograph birds. One of Costa Rica's pleasurable conundrums is, where to bird? (There are just so many great sites to choose from). And so, on this trip I decided, before the tour began, to check out a "photo site" called Nature's Pavilion (website here: Nature's Pavilion), run by a father son combo.

I visited with one of Tropical Birding's Photo Journey tour leaders, Ecuadorian Pablo Cervantes, a good friend of mine. On arrival we met with one of the owners (i.e. the father in the partnership), Dave Lando Sr., who showed us his wonderful property. We made 2 short visits there, when our eyes were glued to our cameras, as a parade of excellent tropical birds came in and out at the feeders. 19 species were recorded at their fruit feeders alone, with another 6 species at their hummer feeders. 

Among the common visitors were the "usual crowd" of Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, as well as Costa Rica's poorly-selected national bird, Clay-colored Robin (Thrush). I say, "poorly selected" only because in a country packed with the exotic and tropical, it is a shame, they did not pick something more representative of what draws birders to this top notch birding destination. Among the other visitors during our visits were Olive-backed Euphonia, Black-cowled Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola, Baltimore Oriole, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Grayish and Buff-throated Saltators, Bananaquit, Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, Crimson-collared, and Golden-hooded TanagersTennessee Warbler, Great KiskadeeGrey-headed Chachalaca, and Black-cheeked Woodpecker! 

The 6 hummingbirds seen in less than an hour at those feeders (which, while only a 30 second walk away from the fruit feeders, we limited our visits to only because we were drowning in photo opps alongside the bird-filled fruit feeders!);  were White-necked jacobin, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Green-breasted Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Stripe-throated Hermit!

Simply put, this is a must do site for bird photographers, and, at only 20 minutes drive from the birding Mecca of La Selva, easy to slip in between birding sessions in the jungle! I am sure this will not be the last time I see the place, as I have two july tours in Costa Rica to come. Cannot wait to return...Away from the feeders themselves, we had a Black-and-green Poison Frog hop below the feeders, and a male Gartered Trogon call loudly until we could ignore it no more and trained our cameras on it too!

More to come from the land of PURA VIDA....