08 November 2017

Costa Rica Bird Challenge: Day 7, (18 Oct 2017)

Shanks and Saltpans….
For the penultimate day of the inaugural Costa Rica Bird Challenge, we were still trailing in third place; just. The first place seemed won on day one, they were in the dust way ahead of us, the Tucan Ticos, and the Redstart Wranglers, with whom we had been playing a game of cat-and-mouse all week long. The race was on, for second place! This day had potential, like so many of the others, but in a different way. We knew we were basically spending a day in the dry Pacific Northwest, so very different from the sweat-inducing humidity we had experienced in Carara, and subsequently some new birds on the horizon. But, on this day the playing field could be opened up significantly, by careful scanning of waterbird areas, where list loading can pay real dividends in a race like this. Every team knew this, and all had plans shrouded in secrecy. Initially, we merely had to meet at La Ensenada for a mangrove boat trip in pursuit of Mangrove Hummingbird, one of the handful of endemics bound by political boundaries (i.e. only found in Costa Rica!) 
Beforehand though, the itinerary was flexible. We headed for some dry country species along the Guacimo Road, which started out very promisingly, with a stream of new species of this habitat, like our first Rufous-naped Wrens, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Rose-throated Becard, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Streak-backed Oriole, and a batch of Black-headed Trogons (our sixth trogon species, with another still to play for later), as well as another stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot
Shortly after setting off in earnest, we also stopped short to make time for our only White-throated Magpie-Jays of the challenge, a stunning and striking species typical of the dry northwest of Costa Rica, where it is positively abundant in the right habitat. We also stopped to admire some White-fronted Parrots framed with a deep blue cerulean sky...
On arrival at La Ensenada Lodge, we had some wiggle room before the boat trip to explore the lodge grounds. First off, a Pacific Screech-Owl was sitting above the bus on arrival, which you would think we’d greet with glee. Not so, it was a species we knew we had over the other teams, and this small advantage had just been wiped away! We set off into the nearby scrub and quickly found our hoped-for target, the local Banded Wren, and also added a calling Spot-breasted Oriole and a hulking Great Black Hawk too, before our boat trip through the mangroves. Sadly, no Mangrove Hummingbirds were evident, and so we docked back and had a wonderful lunch at La Ensenada Lodge
Post-lunch, we had brief walk around the lodge cabins, and Nik (inevitably) found some bright green Orange-fronted Parakeets sitting within a set of bright green leaves, making them hard to pick out for mere mortals. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl tooted nearby, and was also seen. The afternoon was flexible and a potential gamechanger for the teams and the race. We all split off and went our different ways in pursuit of waterbirds. We knew that the nearby Salinas should be good at this hour, with high tide peaking at the time, and it was in terms of numbers, but the variety disappointed us. In spite of thousands of waterbirds, only one non-breeding Red Knot was new for us among the throng of Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated, Wilson’s, Black-bellied, and Collared Plovers, Sanderling, and Short-billed Dowitchers. Of course, on any other day, this would have been a place to spend hours combing the shorebirds and taking in this awesome sight, which it was, but with new species the objective, we needed to scan and move on. We hoped the mangroves would work out better, as I have seen Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Northern Scrub Flycatcher in this set of them before. However, we drew a blank there. Our one respite from a shameful lack of additions, was a low flying Hook-billed Kite that glided across the pans, and was a stellar addition to the list. Finally, with feelings of opportunities lost, we had to start our drive into a very different area indeed, the cloudforests of Monteverde. On arrival at our hotel, the sprawling Hotel El Establo, we quickly added layers of clothing as the chill of the mountains hit us sharply, and tried at dusk for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl on the grounds, with one being heard, and a Mottled Owl also called from the same area. After dinner with the other teams, where it was revealed we were still rooted in third spot, the two other teams went off in search of the screech-owl. I joined up with the leading team and champions in waiting, the Tico Tickers, and went off in search of the owl. On reaching the site though, we found that the Redstart Wranglers had usurped us, and had not only got there earlier, but had seen the owl well and were already leaving! The pressure was on. Luckily, a quick burst of playback later, and the same owl returned our call, and quickly flew onto a mossy branch above us, where it challenged us all to take photos. We all duly obliged.

One more morning of the challenge remained to try and rise one place in the standings...a tense night lie ahead, with missing species swirling around in my head!

29 October 2017

Costa Rica Bird Challenge: Day 6, (17 Oct 2017)

Fiery start to our time in the Pacific…

The annals of birding have oft stated that Carara National Park, located on the Central Pacific, is one of the best of all the birding hotspots in Costa Rica, but why you might ask? While the Caribbean side of the mountains is rather uniform in regards to avifauna north to south, the same cannot be said of the Pacific, where the north is considerably drier than the humid southern belt of that side. Birders tend to center their attentions more on the southern side of this, as it holds more specialties, but why can you not have your cake and eat it too?! Well, Carara allows just that, sitting in the transition zone where both of these important biomes collide, it allows a mixed list of species from both zones by locating yourself at but one lodge, if you so wish. On this challenge/bird race, we covered both in a flash, starting here in Carara for a taste of Central and south Pacific birds, before heading into the north Pacific, if only for a brief spell, at La Ensenada, to give us the best of both avian worlds. We began with a walk around the immediate property of Macaw Lodge, and while macaws did not feature, the clear quality of birding available in our brief walk was proven by species like a male Baird’s Trogon, a handful of Charming Hummingbirds, and Blue-throated Goldentail. However, the drive down from the lodge was when things really heated up, when German spotted an avian ember sitting within a roadside cecropia, the bus was quickly halted, and we were all soon soaking up a fabulous Fiery-billed Aracari, a specialty of the south Pacific, (here at the northern edge of its range).
While both other teams headed in earnest for Carara National Park, which would only seem natural, we tried something different, a gamble of sorts. We knew that the tide favored a coastal stop in the morning, and so we headed to the mouth of the Tarcoles River, while others set off into the forest instead. Here, we were hoping for a flood of waterbirds to pad the list, but also to indulge in some mangrove species, that may be difficult come by during our later planned boat trip for such birds in La Ensenada. Some birds are simply easier with feet planted firmly on the ground. But here, is where one of my slips will haunt me until the end of days…German was busy with the ‘scope searching through the wetland species for the correct wetland species, i.e. ones that would plug gaping gaps on our birds list. He soon homed in on just such a species, Roseate Spoonbill, and things were looking rosy indeed. But then I made a gaff. Even though I was closest to German, and therefore could have locked that bird on the list swiftly (for someone other than our local guide was required to see/hear the bird for it to be valid), I chose to continue focusing on the trickier mangrove birds, leaving the spoonbill for Tim, Niklas and Beltran to count. They were, after all, only a few steps behind. However, that was soon found to be a few steps too many, as the normally lacsidazical Roseate Spoonbill took flight, and never appeared on the bird race again, and so never made it on to our, or any other bird list. And following the final, tiny margin of loss, this was to be a grave mistake indeed. Such things make or break a bird race of this nature, and you could say I learnt something invaluable that day! Our mangrove time did eventually pay off with both Panama Flycatcher and Mangrove Vireo, the latter of which took its merry time to reveal its presence in the area. We then shot off to a little-known area in Orotina, where a certain guide called Alve is getting a growing reputation for being able to deliver some of the trickier species of the area in record time. We were visiting to hope to catch up on a daytime Spectacled Owl, which both other teams had hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, as well as other avian stuff like Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Pacific Screech-Owl, Barn Owl, and more.
We started off with the ground-cuckoo, but we knew with limited time this could be the make or break bird for our time on site, where this was likely to drain time when least needed. After a nervy time, when the bird remained all but mute, it suddenly flapped lazily into a thicket, then creeped out into the open, where it froze for a period! The next search was not quite what we had hoped; in spite of the Spectacled Owl having been present the previous afternoon, it could not be found anywhere (although Long-tailed Manakin was found in its place), and we had to reluctantly accept defeat on another day roost owl search for the day (we had also tried for and failed to find Black-and-white Owl in its traditional haunts around Tarcoles, but were at least compensated for this with first another skillfully piece of spotting by Niklas of a Crane Hawk, and a Ferruginous Owl too). 
Next up, we went off in search of yet another owl, and this one proved simple, a pair of Pacific Screech-Owls were seen perched nonchalantly above a busy roadside. From one owl to the next, we ventured on to the location of an old rusty barn, the likes of which are vital roosting and nesting sites for the next bird to join our list, the humble Barn Owl. This was followed a short time later with a triple pack of Double-striped Thick-Knees.
After meeting for lunch with the other teams, it was hard to get the lie of the land, due to a little caginess, but it felt like the morning in Carara had not been an eventful one, and so we were still gambling on our afternoon time in the forest. Good natured Jonathan Meyrav, in the clearly leading team by this point, was helpful enough to tip us off on a fruitful trail to try though (although it turned out this was the same trail that our guide was already aiming for). After fueling up on rice, beans, and Lizano sauce, we were again ready for the field, and Jonathan’s trail tip soon looked like a winner, when German spotted a male Spot-crowned Euphonia at the trailhead, and moments after we whistled in a fantastic Streak-chested Antpitta that gave looks I would really appreciate on my next tour of the area please! Forest trail work is always a little tough, especially within primary forest that was largely what we were in that afternoon, but slowly but surely, we plucked new species out of the air, including Rufous Piha, Rufous-breasted Wren, Red-capped Manakin, Barred Antshrike, Green Shrike-Vireo, and our first look at a Bicolored Antbird. However, Carara will perhaps best be remembered among the group for something that slithered across the paved path towards the end of our walk; boldly patterned with exes along its side, there was no mistaking the region’s deadliest snake: Central American Fer-de-Lance
The latter part of the afternoon was spent scanning from the road up to Cerro Lodge, where we quickly found some of the hoped-for Stripe-headed Sparrows, got several Scarlet Macaws as they flew lethargically to roost, and also picked up a handful of Yellow-naped Parrots too from our vantage point. One more look around Tarcoles again failed to find/hear Black-and-white Owl, and so we had to accept a handful of Lesser Nighthawks as a substitute, before impending darkness drew us back to Macaw Lodge for a final night’s stay…

The next day, the legendary Monteverde area awaited our arrival…

26 October 2017

Costa Rica Bird Challenge: Day 5, (16 Oct 2017)

Quetzal Time!
This autumn, Costa Rica had lived through a big storm that actually affected the mountains more than the coast, and so this day had been rejigged, so we get some of those mountain birds that were now cut off from us at their more traditional Talalamanca Mountain haunts (i.e. Savegre). Instead, we traveled to Irazu National Park, making our first stop for a tiny hummingbird perched on a wire that materialized into a gorgeous male Scintillant Hummingbird once we had our ‘nocs on it. A wonderful opening. This was followed not long later with a highland classic, a group of Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, which brought excitement all round; it’s a bit of a looker! We steadily added highland species that we knew well today provided our only access too; playing a Costa Rican Pygmy Owl tape failed (as usual), with said owl, but did bring in the rather handsome Fiery-throated Hummingbird, my real intention of playing the call! 
Playing this call also irritated some of the local Flame-throated Warblers, which were only too thrilled to see, a powder blue warbler with a glowing ember where its throat should be! A pair of Black-capped Flycatchers also showed in the same area. As we continued climbing the road and making short stops, we added some tame Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses, and then were met with the sight of the other team buses parked at the side of the road in the fashion that implied something big had just gone down; and it had. The front driver had spotted the emerald form of a male Resplendent Quetzal and brought traffic to a halt, while our cameras and brains went into overdrive at seeing one of the World’s most beautiful bird forms. 
After admiring this scintillating male, with its wispy emeralds green feathers lifting up gently in the wind behind him for a while, we set off for the crater at the top, which held two species in particular only possible there – Volcano Junco, which was waiting by the parking lot for us to arrive, and a pair of feisty Timberline Wrens bounced around the thicker scrub surrounding the enormous crater at the apex of Irazu, which afforded some scenic shots of note, and also led us to another regional endemic, the strangely named Large-footed Finch
We also tracked down our first Sooty Thrushes there too, and too time out from all things avian (honestly I can do that), to admire the incredible views at the top...
(Team Tucan Ticos post-Quetzal and Junco, which I was proud to be part of)
After a fortuitous meeting with a local birder that German knew, we dropped back down on news of a Costa Rican Pygmy Owl having been not only seen, but photographed at close range moments earlier. This gentleman (sorry, I do not know his name), kindly drove us straight to the bridge, where team two, the Redstart Wranglers were already there, but were not aware of the recent owl sighting. A short period of playback later, and the rusty colored owl flew in and landed for all to see. Mission accomplished for one of the highlands more difficult species. Yellow-winged Vireo, some confiding Acorn Woodpeckers and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, were all also seen during the morning.
Following lunch, we had another lengthy drive to somewhere entirely different, we dropped down onto the other side of the mountains and then up to a lodge in the Pacific lowlands, Macaw Lodge, as it lies within the heart of the range of the Scarlet Macaw. The journey time allowed for few stops on the way, once in the Pacific lowlands, but we did add Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, a glowing Lesson’s Motmot lurking in the understorey, and Black-hooded Antshrike, before arriving at the lodge. A post-dinner walk, to look for Spectacled and Black-and-white Owls failed on both fronts.

Next stop Carara…