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Costa Rica, August-September 2009. (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
10 September. Braulio Carrillo.

Dawn start yet again, clambering out of the car at the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station, the lower end of Braulio Carrillo. Skies hinted at a dry day, moderately rare on these traditionally wet slopes. Took the trail that wound off up the hill beyond the ranger station, a pair of Ruddy Quail-Doves amongst the first birds seen. This trail turned out to be absolutely fantastic - non-stop birds from start to finish, almost all pure stunners. Stunning a relative word however - among the many good birds, a very healthy dose of furnarids, this creepers and crawlers diversely attired, but all in a shade of brown. Top quality birds with top quality names - Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners, Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Streak-breasted Tree-hunters, Grey-throated Leaftosser, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, a tremendous collection. Of all the birds, however, the family that shone above all others on this morning were the tanagers, a most respectable collection, adding colour to virtually every flock encountered. With numbers an absolute minimum, the first couple of hours along this trail was simply tanager heaven: fifteen Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, ten Emerald Tanagers, two Bay-headed Tanagers, four Dusky-faced Tanagers, four Tawny-crested Tanagers, a Speckled Tanager, two Blue-Grey Tanagers and, just to complete the list, at least one Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, five Common Bush-Tanagers and one male Green Honeycreeper. And of all those tanagers, no less than half were new for the trip!

Reaching the top of the trail, a Green Hermit and male Collared Trogon marked the spot where I decided to return to base, the route back adding near a dozen Tawny-crowned Euphonias, four fly-over Chestnut-billed Toucans and, amazing things at lek, four White-ruffled Manakins. My friend was asleep in the car, so many birds they had missed!

With a glint of sun breaking through, I fancied second helpings on the Snowcaps, so down the road I went and pulled in alongside our friend the strawberry man, another tub duly purchased. And in the butterfly farm, the Verbenia were buzzing - a splendid six Snowcaps on show this morning, four adult males, one immature male and one female, plus several Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, one Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and two Violet-headed Hummingbirds, as well as two Collared Aracari in trees above. With my taste for hummingbird and strawberry satisfied, it was back to ranger station to walk the lower trails. Parked and crossed the road, wandering down the steep slopes that eventually lead down to the raging Rio Sucio. A Red-tailed Squirrel popped out, then flitting Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens, but the first real action took place about half way down with the discovery of a fast-moving flock. Unfortunately, mostly high in the canopy, I missed almost everything, but scrambling to get viewpoints, I eventually caught the tail-end of the birds - ten smart Black-faced Grosbeaks and an assortment of small warbler-types - five Tawny-crowned Greenlets, three Yellow-Green Vireos and, representing the Nearctic, a Black-and-white Warbler and at least four Red-eyed Vireos, also noted seven Scarlet-rumped Caciques just after.

Down steep slippery slopes, admiring Tapir tracks as we went, the forest began to open out, the flood plain of the Rio Sucio hacking its path through the otherwise dense forest. With the change of habitat, Black Phoebes flew sorties from snags, Variable Seedeaters perched up, White-collared Swifts circled overhead. Then, totally unexpected, a nightjar flushed and landed on the track directly ahead. A mottling of browns, buffs and greys, sporting a dark throat and white collar, this large nightjar was a very early returning Chuck Will’s Widow, a bonus indeed. Then it rose again and off it went, gone. With thoughts of the steep climb to return to the car, back we began to plod. Taking an alternative route, we soon bumped into four Crested Guans, but what was encountered next was truly an impressive beastie - rounding a corner, there it lumbered, slowly crossing the path, then shinnying up trunk. It looked like a Womble, a Clanger at a stretch! Last heard of on Wimbledon Common or the moon, here he now resided, this was the mammal of the trip - a super Northern Tamandua, a member of the anteater family and very smart at that.

Did have ideas to spend the late afternoon exploring the higher elevation trails near the road tunnel some kilometres back towards San Jose, but on arrival found it was raining up there, plus I couldn’t find the start of the paths, I presume now overgrown. Not wishing to slop around in dense dripping vegetation, probably seeing nothing, we decided to call it a day.

Returned to Guadpiles, celebrated by visiting the local equivalent of Burger King, then totalled my trip list again - an impressive 16 new species on this day, taking the total to a grand 377. Hmm, could I edge this summer trip to the 400 mark? Just two days left, arghh!
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wibble wibble
Ah, so the Wombles have retired to the sunshine! Are they the ones breaking into birders' cars then?

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
11 September. To the Caribbean.

A quick dawn run back to Braulio Carrillo, notched up just single new species for the trip - an Olive-sided Flycatcher - but plenty of birds as on the day previous, tanagers galore, a Stripe-throated Hermit, a quick peep back at the Snowcaps, but that was that, I had ideas to get moving. To keep alive any faint hope of reaching 400 species, or better still the 403 target, pretty drastic action was in order - and with the Caribbean lying just 100 km to the east, that seemed the perfect option. A Caribbean beach also appealed to the other member of the party, impressed that an itinerary of mine could include two beaches on a single trip!

Having already added Red-throated Caracara and Crimson-fronted Parakeets in agricultural land near Guadpiles, off we went. With no real gen with regard sites, we rolled into the Caribbean lowlands and started a search for pastures green. Through banana plantations endless, down tracks that suggested promise, the first choice locality took us to a dead end somewhere near Punta de Riel. No golden beach topped by palms, but rather swampy forest crawling in birds …well, at least one of us was pleased! And fantastic it was, flocks and flocks of birds. Merely birding from the roadside, the fare seemed to be a mix of resident delights and passage migrants: White-winged Becards, both male and female, mingling with Black-and-White Warbler; Greyish Saltators and Black-cowled Orioles alongside American Redstarts and Louisiana Waterthrushes; tanagers abundant, including at least ten Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, five Palm Tanagers, as well as several Passerini’s Tanagers and Golden-hooded Tanagers. Black-cheeked Woodpeckers appeared common, a Tropical Pewee was amongst the many flycatchers present and a couple of Olive-backed Euphonia also appeared. Overhead, a movement of hirundines streaming south, Barn Swallows, a few Sand Martins and at east 35 Cliff Swallows, and then for a few brief moments, swifts in their midst - quickly got onto them, six Chimney Swifts, a welcome addition. However, star of the stop was a chunky little bird on roadside tussocks - having missed them at La Selva, I was most pleased to find two Nicaraguan Seed-Eaters, a male and female, both sporting their monster bills and looking right dapper.

Nice though the swamps were, I had promised beach, so tweaking my navigation skills a little, off we went for stop number two. From the coastal city of Puerto Jimenez, the road southward skirts the Caribbean, rather scenic and better still punctuated by the occasional river. At the second of these river mouths, the Rio Vizcaya, we stopped. A Caribbean swim for someone, a naff seawatch for me …or so I had thought it would be. It was actually better than I had been expecting. Propped up against a log, with Semi-palmated Plovers, Grey Plovers, Sanderlings and Whimbrel around my feet, out across the blue waters I scanned. A constant trickle of birds, mostly northbound - about 150 Common Terns an hour, a few Royal Terns and Black Terns, but the absolute highlights, arcing across the horizon, occasionally closer, the first and only Brown Boobies of the trip, always a special bird. Logged eight in all, plus a dozen or so of each Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Pelican. Walks in the neighbouring scrub added a few odds and sods, including several passage Yellow Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos, but the last new bird of the day came up at the river. On wires adjacent to the road bridge, and filing the skies above, dozens and dozens of hirundines - and there, amongst numerous Southern Rough-winged Swallows and Grey-breasted Martins, one Purple Martin, the 11th new bird for the day and species number 388 for the trip.

I pondered how we would spend the next day, the last full day of our trip, could I possible eke out another 12 species? There really was only one option, so back into the car, it was westward again …many hours later we stepped out into a cool night, well positioned for a last day.

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
12 September. Back to the Highlands.

Last full day in Costa Rica. Chill airs at dawn revealed the location, I was back at La Georgina in the Talamanca Cordillera Highlands. Plan for day was a quick banana cake and coffee over the deluxe hummingbird feeders, then to travel the 15 km to drop into the San Geraldo valley, an exquisite locality heaving in highland endemics. Located some hundreds of metres lower than La Georgina, it would perfectly compliment the riches of the higher altitudes and hopefully add a few species.

So the day started, a quick jog along the trails, four Ruddy Pigeons, plus all the now familiar favourites - Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, Black-cheeked Warblers, Large-footed Finches, Collared Redstarts, etc. A few minutes more and I was in the restaurant for the further treats on offer - breakfast for the palate, a royal buzz of hummingbirds for the eyes, mini tallies clicking up at least 40 Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and 15 Magnificent Hummingbirds, plus about ten Volcano Hummingbirds beyond.

Satisfied, into the car we went, up and over the Cerro de la Muerte and just a few kilometres later, we were turning off the Pan-American Highway down into what was to be a most productive day. As the track began its precipitous descent, the hairpins deserving more attention than my wandering eyes allowed, birds began to appear. A bevy of flycatchers included two Yellowish Flycatchers, one Tufted Flycatcher and a Black-capped Flycatcher, plus an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Also at least six Acorn Woodpeckers, one Hairy Woodpecker and, hopping about on a verge, the first Yellow-faced Grassquits of the day. Somewhere along here I began to somewhat regret not filling the petrol tank prior to entering the mountains the evening before - with no fuel station at ether La Georgina or in this valley, the needle was now sitting firmly at zero! I decided coasting was in order and bumped down the next few kilometres in near perfect silence, no engine to disturb goings on.

As the valley levelled out, to Cabinas el Quetzal we arrived. What an amazing place - flowering bottlebrush in the small garden an absolute magnet, pulling in hummingbirds by the dozen. As at La Georgina, Magnificent Hummingbirds abundant, but with the change in altitude, so too a change in species composition - gone were the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, but in their place superb White-throated Mountain-Gems, at least 30 buzzing about. Also, mixing with the Volcano Hummingbirds, a good few Scintillant Hummingbirds, not so very easy to identify. Had eyes already been wide, they were about to become ever wider - there, perched right out in the open, was a bird I had very much wanted to see at La Georgina, yet failed. Dressed in subtle ash greys and yellows, topped by a nice crest, one Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher. Barely had I had a moment to enjoy this silky fellow when yet more distractions flew in, a bright red splash of colour, followed by greenish replica - two Flame-coloured Tanagers, male and female. Non-stop action, moments later, two Yellow-bellied Siskins to add to the haul.

It was only about 10 a.m., but I had already lost count f how many new birds I’d seen during the day, it was time for coffee! With feeders full of White-throated Mountain-Gems, the terrace of the Cabinas el Quetzal café was a splendid place to spend a half-hour. The Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher reappeared, Sooty Robins bounced in for fruit and without actually tallying the species, I reckoned I was now only four or five species of the 400 mark. An action plan kicked in - the valley still held a good half dozen potential species for me, a walk on the trails above the luxury Savegre Lodge could add a few, whilst walking enough kilometres of the bubbling river would surely result in American Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet, both much desired extras.

Problem one, the Savegre Lodge trails were perhaps private, reserved for their wealthy clientele. Not able, and not fancying, a night in the US $ 200 cabins, I opted for bluff. Arriving by good fortune just as a contingent of rich folks did, I mingled and admired the flowers and gardens around reception, me rather scruffier than my fellow visitors, but suitably similar. Rufous-collared Sparrow scattering, off I strolled - only to be accosted by the resident bird guide … ‘oops, game up’, thought I! I readied myself with Plan B, to enquire whether day guests could lunch at the plush restaurant and thereafter use the trails. However, I clearly blended in better than I thought - believing I was one of the new arrivals, he was merely offering me his services. Above us circled swifts - mostly White-collared Swifts, but also a Black Swift, another new bird for the trip. After admiring these and chatting a while, I politely declined offers for a tour and made haste for the trails …and fine they were too. Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers came charging through, assorted flocks of Flame-throated Warblers and Collared Redstarts, a Black-and-White Warbler too, plus various Black-cheeked Warblers and a couple of Large-footed Finches, but the star of the walk was a splendid Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, an exquisite bird and most confiding. Back at the hotel, I gave a nod to the gardeners eyeing me, then hurried back to the safety of the road!

Next came the river - without requiring much persuasion, my friend agreed to drive back to Cabinas el Quetzal, where by now the bakery would be open. I would follow the stream, birding all the way. First a Louisiana Waterthrush, then a flock with both Brown-capped Vireo and Yellow-Green Vireo, then the first of the targets - a Torrent Tyrannulet bobbing from rock to rock on an area of shingle. American Dipper took rather longer, a walk of some kilometres passing before ‘ziit zit zit’ and the quarry came zipping up the river, low over the surface, landing on a boulder mid-stream. With the two down, it was time for the bakery, afternoon tea now well-deserved. Across a gully, a fallen tree offered a convenient walkway - that was a mistake, midway across, the whole thing disintegrated, the trunk rotten. Winding myself in the process, and landing in right gunk, I had to then clamber up steep banks too, thus finally arriving at the bakery a right scruff bag! The bakery, however, was absolutely the best in all Costa Rica - absolutely sumptuous delights, apple crumble, cinnamon cake, fresh blueberry milkshake and, equally good, the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher was still in the garden, with anther two spotted on the slopes opposite.

Post-bun, a quick wander on trails near the Cabinas added a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, plus two Black-billed Thrush-Nightingales, but the afternoon was wearing on, a deadline to return our car to San Jose looming. With much regret, it was time to depart.

Up the track, the road growing ever steeper, I rounded a corner and noticed a trail I had previously overlooked. ‘Ten minutes‘, I said, darting off. Maybe there would be time to grab a last offering, perhaps the Sulphur-winged Parakeets that still eluded me. No parakeets, no new birds, but absolutely stunning views of the Zeledonia, the Wrenthrush - pottering about on a stump, creeping through undergrowth, this truly compensated for the poor views two weeks earlier at La Georgina, a fitting finale to the day.

Also stopped briefly at Mirador de Quetzales to spy their feeders - minimums of 25 Magnificent Hummingbirds and 15 Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, plus two Black-and-Yellow Silky Flycatchers and, nearby, a Western Wood-Pewee. It was then back to San Jose, miraculously not running out of petrol, but once again hitting the city just as the evening rush hour got going, ever the horrendous traffic. Dumped the car near the airport, vanished into Alajuela for our last night in Costa Rica.

Had exhausted all our local currency, so no splash out on a final meal, but did do the final species tally - the day had added an incredible 13 new species, the trip list 401. Most pleasing for a summer outing, thought I.

It was not, however, the end!
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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
13 September. The Finale.

And so it was, the trip to Costa Rica over. Gazing over the streets of Alajuela at dawn, six Crimson-fronted Parakeets congregated in greenery, a couple of Blue-Grey Tanagers hopped up onto wires. Had to be at the airport at 06.30 a.m., no time for birding. From the taxi, the first Black Vultures rising, Great-tailed Grackles littering the verges, these would be my last birds ...or so I thought. An hour later, as our plane thundered down the runway, I gazed out at the Costa Rica that I would in seconds leave. And there, on the short turf, running, then spooked by the plane, species number 402 for the trip, one Killdeer!!!

With that, into the blue skies yonder, next stop Miami, USA.

Given Miami International's fame for delays and hassle at immigration, it might have been wise to spend my four-hour stop over in a coffee bar, but I opted for a quick excursion. Down the freeway from the airport entrance, barely a 15 minute walk, and I was in the wilds of a wooded traffic island - hardly the Everglades, it nevertheless notched up the first birds on my Miami list: several Northern Mockingbirds, a couple of Collared Doves and, strutting across a nearby parking lot, three Common Mynas. A flock of White Ibis circled in the sunny skies. Next trotted off across a road and then found a canal, palm-lined and surely the best chance I had to find a few birds in the limited time available. Very nice it was, a Tricoloured Heron, then a Snowy Egret, then a Little Blue Heron, two Common Moorhens dabbling about. Following the canal, soon added a Great White Egret, then bumped into perhaps the best bird of the mini-excursion - tapping away on a palm and most photogenic, a splendid Red-bellied Woodpecker. Also various hirundines, three Killdeers, a pair of Ospreys perched on a roadside pole, plus a familiar friend, a European Starling.

Having wandered a fair way fromt he airport terminal, I thought it prudent to begin my return. Cut up to the airport terminal fence and began to follow it round. Admired a Loggerhead Shrike on the wires, then got accousted by a passing police patrol. Not too impressed by a foreign tourist stroling along the freeway, a number of questions followed, the police officer's closing remark 'it's dangerous to walk here'. Whether this referred to the locals' driving habits, the chances of a plane crashing on my head or a propensity for muggers to cruise this neighbourhood, I chose not to enquire. On I went, the only additional bird being another Osprey, this one risking suicide by flying directly across the airpor's main runways.

Got back to the airport, changed into a nice new tee-shirt, even had time for a coffee. Trip over, a success I deemed - in Costa Rica, 402 species in three weeks (compared to 403 in four weeks in 1991), plus a little bonus of 18 species in Miami.

Photographs. Miami highlights...


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