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…

Costa Rica Bird Challenge: Day 4, (15 Oct 2017)

Rancho Naturalista to Crested Owl; a day for the ages…
I have to admit having earmarked this day for something pretty special before arriving in Costa Rica, and I approached it with a little extra excitement to some of the others, no offence to the other excellent sites meant. However, “Rancho” is a bit of a birding legend. The lodge is run by a birder, the supreme host of Lisa Erb, and has a team of excellent bird guides right on site. I knew one of them from my brief time here last February, and was quick to secure the services of Harry Barnard for this day. His hearing skills, spotting skills and guiding skills are superb. I can honestly say I have not experienced such accurate descriptions of where a bird is hidden within a mass of tropical leaves better from anyone else. He carried no laser pointer, and did not require one either!
The first few hours of the day were spent birding the grounds close to the lodge, and with the considerable aid of Harry, we had chalked up 120 species or so in a few hours before we left there, including some special ones indeed: Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, a lonely Green Thorntail, White-necked JacobinViolet-headed Hummingbird, several Green-breasted Mangos, great looks at a tubby Tawny-throated Leaftosser (a bird that simply oozes character in spite of being largely brown in colour); Golden-olive Woodpecker, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Carmiol’s Tanager. Dull-mantled Antnbirds were also heard calling from deep down below calling from a wet gully, while the taunting calls of the always difficult to see Thicket Antpitta echoed down to us from the slopes above. A landmark moment also came when we finally nailed down our first House Wren of the challenge (quite belatedly for such a common species!)
After reluctantly leaving Rancho Naturalista behind, (but fortunately not Harry who lent his ears and eyes to us for the entire day), we set off for the Tuis Valley, with two particular targets in mind, a Sunbittern hiding among the boulders of the river, and the rare Lanceolated Monklet in the riverside forest, a very tough bird in this country. The first bird proved straightforward; in spite of the forest seeming deathly quiet, a Sunbittern showed, and due to the tenacity of a fellow team in the same area, the Redstart Wranglers, we all got to enjoy long, long looks at the cute Lanceolated Monklet too, before we all left for El Copal, another area of excellent foothill forest not far from Rancho.
After narrowly making it up the dirt road to El Copal, we quickly ate and launched off into the forest, knowing that our few hours on site might feel like barely enough, even in the potentially worst part of the day in the tropics – early afternoon. However, this trail and this reserve bucked that trend, and we enjoyed a near constant stream of birds, and ended up virtually having to run back to the bus to fit in one more site before dark. Flocks were quite active, and we got lots of Black-and-yellow and Emerald Tanagers (no exaggeration), got see well males of both White-ruffed and White-crowned Manakins, got looks at both Song Wren and Bicolored Antbird (but could not set eyes on the calling Spotted Antbirds in the same area unfortunately due to severe time constraints leading us away), Tawny-capped and White-vented Euphonias, a glowing male White-winged Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, and the rare Rufous-browed Tyrannulet were all also seen. Black-breasted Wood-Quails however, approached very close and nearly deafened us with their raucous calls, but never broke cover.
The reason we ended up rushing around the trail quicker that we’d have liked to, was not because we had far to go, or that the birding was bad, quite the contrary; but because the hotel we were heading for Casa Truire is home to a large wetland, which could provide some serious list loading of waterbirds that we may not have time for elsewhere on the bird race. We simply had to make it there with light to spare. We made it there in the nick of time, avoided checking in to give us the time needed, and jogged down to the lake edge. Several Prothonotary Warblers in the trees beside the dock were a nice start, as were wild Muscovy Ducks, Snail Kites, the call of our first White-throated Crake, and news from another group of a Limpkin around the corner, which was soon located along with Least Grebe, and better still Least Bittern. One of the last birds of daylight was a Russet-naped Wood-Rail strutting across the lakeside trail, and several Pauraques lifting off the forest path. However, the day was not over. Following a rather extravagant dinner, we set out for nightbirds, and very quickly were being glared at by an unhappy looking Tropical Screech-Owl. We then ran into the leading team (led by local guide Diego Quesada), who very kindly showed us a Crested Owl (adult and juvenile) they had just found, to round off what was anticipated to be one of the better days of the tour, and surpassed expectations, with just under 200 species recorded for our team on this day.
The next day was to be very different indeed, with a visit to the endemic rich highlands to start, and ending on the other, Pacific, side of the mountains. Just outside Carara National Park