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Costa Rica - Volcan Poas & Guanacaste (2 Viewers)

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?

[Warning! Today’s post contains lots of really boring stuff! Travel details and such, for those who are interested in such things. To see the part that actually is about birds, skip down a couple of posts, to the one headed “Day 1”]

In mid-February, 2010, the "spousal equivalent" and I just managed to set aside a week for vacation, and we decided to use it to make another trip (our fourth) to Costa Rica.

In the time leading up to this trip, some people (workmates, family members) expressed surprise at this choice of destination – “Costa Rica, again?!” would be the phase that would best sum up their collective reaction. None of these people, as you may well have already surmised, are of the birding persuasion. When I tried to bring a factual point to bear, pointing out that this small country has a greater variety of birds (and, for that matter, orchids, butterflies, trees…) than exist in all of the U. S. and Canada combined, I was usually met with stares of frank disbelief. Long explanations of the mysteries of biogeography were just not on, so I would just give up at this point.

“Bird people” of course, know better. But, even among this enlightened group, I can well imagine that a question of this nature might still arise, albeit in a more thoughtful form; “Why are you returning to this same country again, when there are so many other destinations that you’re never visited at all?” Well, there are many possible answers to this question – and I will not bore everyone with a lengthy exposition on the subject of “Costa Rica versus other birding destinations” within the context of this forum. However, putting it in most distilled form I can manage, I will say this much: from the climate, to the people, to the gallo pinto and papaya breakfasts, this is the place where it all comes together for me. Oh, yes, and there are some good birds too...

In a more immediate, practical sense, we had three motives for going to Costa Rica on this particular trip:

  • A friend of ours happened to be in Costa Rica already, doing a year of graduate work at a small university in the Valle Central – couldn’t very well go all the way to the neotropics this winter and not go see him, could we? He’d feel snubbed.
  • There are quite a few other Canadians flying to south escape winter at this time of year – which means more flights available, including direct flights to both Liberia and San José.
  • Third and most important – in our previous trips we had never managed to do any birding in the dry North-west of Costa Rica, in the province of Guanacaste. Having quite a different climate, this area is home to a good number of birds that are not found elsewhere in the country. So Guanacaste, and Santa Rosa National Park in particular, would the main focus of this trip – going there would be almost like going to a completely new place!

Some Practical Info.

The Flight:
We flew with Skyservice, a fairly low-priced charter carrier with two flights a week between Toronto (YYZ) and Liberia, Costa Rica (LIR). Most of the passengers on these flights are headed for resorts – there being many fine beaches within one or two hours’ drive of LIR – but air-only flights are usually easily obtained (but book early – the tour companies buy in bulk!). As I alluded to before, the flight is direct and non-stop – a huge advantage, compared to connecting in Miami or somewhere. When you’ve only got seven days, a couple of hours spent waiting for a connection can seem like a very serious waste of time!
The flight was really quite inexpensive, too, when you consider all the taxes that go into these things – C$647.25 per person, total. Of course, there were some disadvantages that came along with getting the cheap flight, such as the fact that we had to be at the airport at 0430 on a Thursday morning for our departure; but overall, it was a good deal.

Renting a car:
Never to be taken lightly, in Costa Rica – if you are contemplating your first trip there, I would advise against it. However, with us wanting to visit the friend in the Central Valley, and a number of (widely separated) sites way off in Guanacaste, it was the only realistic option.

I did a lot of shopping around, comparing many different combinations of price and vehicle, before settling on Tricolor Car Rental. They seemed to have the best price, and the right vehicle, for what we needed. Many emails followed, back and forth between their agents and me, while I nailed down details, like the insurance coverage included, the date and time of our arrival, where we would have to go to pick up the rental, etc. I have no idea why we did any of this, because, upon arrival, no one was there to meet us at all (as explicitly promised). Calls to the office number (provided in their emails to me) yielded only a barely-audible recorded message.

Eventually, we resorted to just asking someone at the taxi rank to just drive us to the local Tricolor office. It was at this point that we learned that the Liberia office had close quite some time ago; their only office was in San José. Ooops! Not only was there no car, there apparently was never any car! It was some sort of elaborate ruse on the part of Tricolor … although their motivation in doing this evades me… (This is just the kind of thing that I would find vaguely funny - were it happening to somebody else).

In the end, we were able to get the exactly same model through another agency – just for US$50 more than we had expected to spend. But at least this car actually existed!

Some useful items that we took:
  • My old copy of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch. Old, tattered, and a bit mildewed (from getting really soaked at Rara Avis in 1995), its taxonomy is over two decades old, but I’m very attached to it. (Uh, the book, not the taxonomy.) I still think this has the best text section of any book in the region.
  • A brand-new Costa Rican checklist, courtesy of the Comité Cientifico Asociacion Ornitolólogico de Costa Rica, published 2009. In the report that is to follow (I promise, I will get around to talking about birds, someday) the common names and taxonomy I use will be based on this list. In a few cases, I will also include the older “Stiles & Skutch” common name, in parentheses (if I feel it is likely to be more familiar than the “new” name).
  • A Sony α DSLR with a 70-300 mm f4.5-5.6 lens. We found that, in most circumstances, the length of this lens was perfectly adequate; the aperture, not so much. Birds were usually found in dim-ish situations, so we needed more glass. (No big surprise, for you photographers out there). Therefore, we came back with a relatively small number of photos of birds, despite a lot of good sightings of birds.
  • An iPod Touch, for bird songs. I didn’t even try to find an exhaustive catalogue of Costa Rican birds, just the ones that I thought I would be most likely to have trouble with otherwise. So I went to Xeno-canto and downloaded most of the local nightjars, all the small owls, and a few of the more easily-confused flycatchers.
  • A Garmin nuvi® 260W GPS navigator. Excellent for determining where we were right now, and seeing the location that you’re heading for – alas, not so great at giving step-by-step instructions when trying to drive from one to the other. I don’t think should reflect badly on the unit itself, but rather the imperfect programming the map; just a week before departure, I downloaded a very recent (last year) third-party Costa Rica map for the GPS, from http://www.gpstravelmaps.com/index.php. Theoretically, this map should have allowed us to get from A to B without any complications; unfortunately, those Costa Rican roads stubbornly refused to conform to it (what gall!). However, used in conjunction with our ITMB paper map, the GPS was still useful.

Some useless items that we took:
A scope and tripod. I had never bothered to pack a scope along on a trip to Costa Rica before, but this time, we were headed to an part of the country with wide-open grasslands. I had visions of us straining our eyes through the bins at some hawk perched on a distant (and inaccessible) tree limb. Ha, I wish! As it turned out, I only managed to get it set up once in the whole week. And, even that bird (a Pale-billed Woodpecker) managed to escape before I drew a bead on it. All the scope did for us is come very close to putting us over our luggage weight limit on the way there, and get in the way when I was hauling it around, while were there.

Something we didn’t take, but really wish we had taken
Adhesive tape – preferably, one of those rolls of white, single-sided medical tape; will explain what we needed that for in a later post.
Dramatis Personae:

Peter C: Me, myself, your humble scribe.

DMM: Significant Other, fellow bird-watcher, companion extraordinaire on expeditions to the four corners of the map, She Who Must Be Obeyed, etc.

Tim: ( An acronym: “That Infernal Machine!”) Our rented small 4X4 SUV, a Daihatsu Terios of uncertain vintage. Actually, Tim wasn’t so bad – got us everywhere we needed to go, had no breakdowns, and had excellent ground clearance for such a small vehicle (which we had frequent cause to be very thankful for). He just had a frustrating reluctance to shift into 1st and Reverse when asked - the stick was very ‘rubbery’. Also, for some bizarre reason, the car lacked a dome light.

Trillian: Our electronic navigator – not the GPS machine itself, per se, but the “ghost in the machine” who told us, quite literally, where to get off. (Not, as I alluded to above, with the greatest degree of fidelity to any sort of objective reality. Trillian, no doubt, would claim that it wasn’t her fault that Costa Rica’s roads weren’t laid down correctly.) Although it sounds silly, we talked about her so often (“Trillian wants us to do what?!”) that naming her was a matter of simple convenience.
Ok Peter

You got me hooked - can't wait for Day 1 and onwards.

Can understand peoples stunned surprise when you say you're off to CR - again.

Until those people have been there themselves they cannot possibly understand. Because of our interest a work mate of mine went last year. Not a birder but came back as a convertee, if that is the right term.

Anyway, can't wait for the story to unfold.
Forget to mention

Thanks for the mention of the scope + tripod. We are going back (again - haha) next January and I had been considering taking my scope etc. This is the 3rd time of going and not taken the scope previously, partly because we were in tour groups In view of what you say I might reconsider for this up and coming trip which is not linked to a scheduled tour.
Day 1, Feb 11: Toronto–Liberia–Lago Arenal

After an uneventful flight, we touched down Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR) just after 1100 local time.

We always make a bit of a deal of seeing how quickly we can make the first identification of the trip; so, we had eyes peeled for the walk across the tarmac to the terminal building. Number one was ID’d in about five seconds, as it swooped low over the concrete apron – Barn Swallow. Oh, well, nice bird – especially for February (where I come from).

The arrivals building at LIR is a very primitive-looking structure, as airports go – basically a big, steel-framed shed, open to the elements at both ends. Visitors from many parts of the world might expect House Sparrows to take advantage of such a situation – and this expectation would be fulfilled. But they might be a little more impressed to see the big yellow and grey Tropical Kingbird perching in the rafters above the customs & immigration line, which occasional sallied for prey out onto the apron. The building also hosted a fair number of Great-tailed Grackles in the roof; although this is a widespread and numerous species, I find them to be one of the quintessential sights – and sounds – that lets me know I'm back in the tropics.

After going through the car rental wringer (see post #1 – or perhaps, you’d rather not), and coming out of it more or less intact, we drove east towards the actual town of Liberia. The intention was to pick up the Carretera Interamericana (Highway #1), take it south to Cañas, and thence over the Cordillera Tilarán to Laguna Arenal. Just a bit of a swing around the west end of the lake would take us to Nuevo Arenal, and just beyond that, our first night’s stop, Ceiba Tree Lodge (see map image, attached).

I had really hoped we could make a lunch stop at Hacienda La Pacifica (down near the Cañas turn-off), because I had been reading out it for years, and it sounded like it might be interesting for birds; but with the extra delay in picking up the car, we decided to stop for lunch right in “downtown” Liberia. An advantage of this was that there was a large “Supermercado” there, where we could purchase drinks and plantain chips for the road (and at real – rather than tourist – prices); the big drawback was that, even in CR, sitting at downtown intersection will produce very few birds, even if you do get an outside table (our total was one – a White-winged Dove).

By the time we were done eating, paying, and shopping for supplies, it was almost 1500hrs. This left us just under three hours to reach La Ceiba, before we’d be groping around in the dark for it – something I had no interest in doing. In other words, we were in a hurry, which was a great pity; there were some interesting sights along the way, and I would liked to have had the time to dawdle.

The route became very interesting after we turned east at Cañas and headed for the hills, towards the town of Tilarán. The east wind, which had been fairly stiff back in Liberia, became extremely strong up here. It seemed that it was being intensified, as it was funneled through gaps in the cordillera – I could feel Tim actually being pushed backwards by the gusts – but we did enjoy the views; especially one of a rainbow, one foot of which was standing in the valley of Lake Arenal, well below us. Due to the hurry we were in, almost all the birding we managed to do was “on the fly” (sorry) as it were, so the only birds we saw well enough to ID were large birds with some sort of really obvious feature – the dihedral of the Turkey Vulture, the white wing-patches of the Crested Caracara, or the huge tails of those wacky-looking White-throated Magpie-jays.

The road we were on (Ruta #142) was in very good shape, but, as is common here, seldom has a wide enough shoulder to allow one to pull over safely. There was one spot where we were able to do so, briefly, and here we got excellent views of a co-operative flock of Orange-fronted Parakeets, plus a Yellow Warbler (the first of many “birds from home” that we would see on this trip.)

Finally arrived at Ceiba Tree Lodge with about 15 minutes of daylight left. This lodge, perched on a hill above the Laguna de Arenal, is a very pleasant place – quiet, with bright flower beds everywhere, a good lake view – and, that amazing tree that it is named for, right there outside our room!

Naturally, the first thing we did, before even checking in, was to do some birding in what light remained. There was a reasonably good mixed flock to look at, moving along one of the banks of flowers next to the driveway, consisting of a number of Variable Seedeaters (here, the almost completely black form, with just a small white ‘handkerchief’ tucked into the bend of the wing), a Yellow-faced Grassquit, a Blue-grey Tanager, and one Euphonia sp. that neither of us saw well enough to ID positively.

There were also a few more of those temperate migrants about, including Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. Just at twilight, a Common Paraque started to call from the brush just a few metres down the hill from our room; but we’d had a very long day, so went to bed soon after dark.

(Birds are listed, more or less, in order sighted. Life birds will be in bold.)

1. Barn Swallow
2. House Sparrow
3. Tropical Kingbird
4. Great-tailed Grackle
5. Rock Pigeon
6. White-winged Dove
7. Great Egret
8. Turkey Vulture
9. Crested Caracara
10. White-throated Magpie-jay
11. Cattle Egret
12. Orange-fronted Parakeet
13. Yellow Warbler
14. Variable Seedeater
15. Yellow-faced Grassquit
16. Chestnut-sided Warbler
17. Blue-grey Tanager
18. Clay-coloured Thrush
19. Baltimore Oriole
20. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
21. Montezuma Oropendula

Just a note on the photos: DMM and I shared photo-taking duties on this trip (as always), and I seldom remember afterwards who took what. However, as a quick guide, if the photo is sharp, well-framed, and level, that's usually hers; the dark, blurry, skewed ones are usually mine.


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I travelled to CR six times, loved the country and of course the birding, was asked repeatedly 'Why CR again?', hard to explain. Then decided to try a 7th one, it lasted 5 years...
Yeah, I also got hooked... ;)

Waiting for next days...
Hi Peter, you mentioned Xeno-canto for downloading some bird song. I remember doing this a while back for another area but now do not seem to be able to download some Costa Rican birds. How do you do it?
Enjoyable reading and looking forward to more! I completely understand coming back to Costa Rica. I had to come back so much that I finally stayed for good.
Look forward to the next segment Peter, good read. Did "she who must be obeyed" help you write this???:-O

Are you mad!!! DMM would slice me in half with a butterknife if she saw that...
Fortunately, she's far too busy for frivolous things like reading Birdforum. I hope.

Hi Peter, you mentioned Xeno-canto for downloading some bird song. I remember doing this a while back for another area but now do not seem to be able to download some Costa Rican birds. How do you do it?

Ummm, never had any problem with any of the birds I was interested in, but then, I didn't try for everything.

I just do a search on the species (or in this case, the place - the Map Search is a wonderful feature!), and when the list of recordings comes up, right-click (Windows) or Ctrl-click (Mac) the bird's name, and choose "Save link as" from the menu. This allows you to put the linked mp3 in your choice of folders.
Hey, Peter -

Good, detailed report so far - not boring at all. Hoping to hear more about how you liked Ceiba Tree Lodge. Plantain chips were my weakness as well. I found room in my luggage to come back with a few bags.

Day 2: Friday, February 12 (First Part) – Ceiba Tree Lodge

My internal clock having been completely messed up yesterday, I woke up far too early this morning – even by “birding trip” standards. It was 0400, and as keen as you might be, there’s really nothing happening at that hour; so, I just tried for another hour’s sleep – to no avail.

I got up anyway, and went out, but all was quiet (except for insects, and the occasional temporally-disoriented cockerel) until 0500 or so, when the Paraque started up again. He was a very slippery sort of character – seemed to call from one spot, move, and then call again, but I was never able to see him (and by this time it was light enough). I got to thinking, perhaps, that there were several of them, and they were just playing with me…

La Ceiba Tree came with breakfast included, but as this was not available until 0730 (bird-watching is definitely not the focus of this place!) we had some time to kill. No loss, however: though this is not exactly a wilderness lodge, and there are no hiking trails as such, the driveway up from the main road serves this purpose quite well. The whole length is planted with an impressive array of gardens, and these have their own suite of birds that prefer open or edge habitats; we saw quite a few of these, in very short order. Notably, Grested Guan, Common Tody-flycatcher, and Passerini’s Tanager.

[Aside]This latter species – formerly known as Scarlet-rumped Tanager, before being split – is an absolute stunner in day-glo red and velvety black. Common as dirt on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, it is one of the most beautiful birds in the country – in the world. I believe that, if you were to fly 12 hours to Costa Rica, deplane, open eyes, see a male Passerini’s Tanager, and then get right back on the plane again and fly 12 hours home – well, it might be an appalling waste of money and jet fuel, but still a pretty darn good day of birding. [/End Aside]​

There was plenty else to see as well - the oropendolas doing their extraordinary bowing calls, Bananaquits probing into flowers, and a Stripe-headed Sparrow belting out a long and complex song. Our attention was particularly drawn to what looked like a family group of boldly barred, very “chattery” birds. These were quite unfamiliar to us; they were wren-shaped, except they looked much too big (for a wren). But in fact, that’s exactly what they turned out to be, Band-backed Wrens - our first lifer of the trip!

About halfway down the driveway, we came to an open area where we could see the lake again, and we got good, if distant, views of a pair of Ringed Kingfishers. One was perched in the crown of a cecropia tree next to another bird, which looked tiny in comparison. With bins on it, this second bird resolved itself into a Hoffman’s Woodpecker – not exactly a small bird! (For North Americans, Hoffman’s is about equivalent to the Red-bellied in size; don’t know what the equivalent Palaearctic woodpecker would be – Green, maybe?)

But this point, tummies were beginning to rumble, so it was time to head back to the main house for breakfast. The view from the patio where they serve it is also excellent – and we added Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Great Kiskadee as we ate. Then, all too soon, it was time to pack up and go (esos norteamericanos locos – always hurrying everywhere!), but we got one more bird before we left – a delightful little Stripe-throated (Little) Hermit, visiting the heliconias right next to the car.

This morning’s haul:
22. Hoffman’s Woodpecker
23. House Wren
24. Crested Guan
25. Passerini’s Tanager
26. Black-striped Sparrow
27. Bananaquit
28. Common Tody-flycatcher
29. Band-backed Wren
30. Ringed Kingfisher
31. Buff-throated Saltator
32. Great Kiskadee
33. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
34. Stripe-throated Hermit

(By the way, anybody recognize this orchid?)


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Day 2: Friday, February 12 (Second part) - Lago Arenal/La Fortuna

At this point in the narrative, I thought I should clear something up – a question that may have occurred to some people: on a trip that was supposed to be dedicated to finding the birds of the dry forests of Guanacaste, what were we doing spending our first day here on the shores of Lake Arenal?

For the answer, I will have to take a brief diversion into another story, a bit of our first Costa Rican trip…

[Flashback]We were in Monteverde for four nights, waaay back in 1991, and we were hearing rumblings – and the occasion loud percussive bang – coming from the north-east. We didn’t know for sure, but thought it was safe to assume that these were coming from Volcan Arenal, which was quite active at the time.

But from where we were, just over on the Pacific side of the Cordillera de Tilarán, there was no way to see it. (Our hotel - the Belmar - had a spectacular view the other way, though. Could see most of the Golfo de Nicoya, and some of the peninsula beyond, right from our room). However, one of our guide books said that it was possible to see the volcano from the Cerro de Los Amigos – the trail to which started, conveniently, right behind our hotel.

So, we decided to spend one morning climbing this trail – it was a nice sunny day (by Monteverde standards) so it looked as though our chances of seeing something were actually pretty good. Unfortunately, this guide book had failed to mention the length of the walk – and it seemed to go on for hours. Just when it looked like we were reaching some sort of leveling-off point, there would be another corner to turn, and another rise around the bend. It did not help matters that, despite the fine day, there were almost no birds to be seen. And, to top it all off, when we finally did approach the ridge, we could see that the whole of the valley ahead was completely socked in with cloud – no way were we going to be seeing Arenal that day.[/End Flashback]
Anyway: Given all the (fruitless) effort we put in that day - and all the good birding time that was lost in the process - we have, ever since, been determined to one day get to Volcán Arenal. And actually see it. Hence the diversion into the Tilirán Region.

Ahem. So, were was I? Oh, yes.

"We now take you back to the originally-scheduled narrative, already in progress: When we last looked in on our plucky adventurers, they were preparing to leave Ceiba Tree Lodge, hoping to get a view – and with any luck some pictures - of the famous Volcán Arenal…”

So far, the morning was mostly sunny, with just a bit of thin, high cloud … but not wanting to take any chances, we wasted no time, and headed east on the road that hugged the north side of the lake. It turned out, we didn’t have far to go – maybe five km. – before the highway turned just a bit inland, climbed a small rise, and… (cue Mr. Handel) Alleluia! There it was at last, the perfect cinder-cone shape of Volcán Arenal – its summit wreathed with a few wisps, but otherwise completely unobstructed! (“And there was much rejoicing, hooray.”)

Problem was, I now really wanted a photo, and the road at this point offered no reasonable place to pull off; soon after, it dipped down towards the lake again, and the mountain disappeared behind the trees. We continued driving a little bit, and luckily, a few hundred metres along, there was a small sign that read “Mirador Arenal” (a “look-out point”) next to a driveway on our left. (There was another sign, just beyond the first, which read “No entrada por vehiculos”, but in our haste, we decided that we didn’t have time to translate that one.)

So, we took this turn, and soon were climbing a moderately steep, winding, and very bumpy road – more like a farm track, really. It didn’t take long before this road became too vague for Tim to safely negotiate, so we parked and continued on foot. We then ran into an obstacle of quite a different kind – a distraction, in the form of a score of small passerines diving into the tall grass along the side of the track. It appeared to consist mostly of the same old Variable Seedeaters we’d seen back at the lodge, but you never know … however, we made the snap decision to press on, and hope to spend some more time investigating these birds on the way down. (Presuming, of course, that we would find them again). After only about two minutes’ more walking, we came to the crest of a hill, which gave us a pretty good angle for photographs – if not the best lighting (see first photo, below.) DMM, who is something of a volcanism enthusiast, said “Okay, we’ve seen it, we can go home now.” Har, har.

Now, as it turned out, all this rush and anxiety was completely unnecessary; if anything, the morning got clearer as it wore on, and we got much better photos later, from the north and east of the volcano. But it might not have been the case. This was made clear by the story told to us just a day later, over breakfast at Poas Volcano Lodge, by a pair of French travelers. They were on an extended stay in Costa Rica, and told us that they had been at La Fortuna just the previous week. Apparently, they had spent two days there, and “never got to see” the mountain in that whole time! So it seems we had, indeed, been very lucky. (And speaking of luck, ¡que milagro! we did find that mixed flock again on the way down – good thing, because while it was (as suspected) composed mostly of familiar birds, it also had our first Grey-crowned Yellowthroat.)

After snapping more shots of the volcano (and a very brazen Coati) near La Fortuna, most of the rest of our day was occupied with travel - navigating the roller-coaster ride across the Cordillera de Tilarán to our next hotel, Poas Volcano Lodge.

Birds from the Lago Arenal & La Fortuna area:
35. Neotropic Cormorant
36. Southern Rough-winged Swallow
37. Grey-crowned Yellowthroat
38. Spotted Sandpiper
39. Snowy Egret
40. Black Vulture


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Day 2: Friday, February 12 (Final Part) - La Fortuna/Poas Volcano Lodge

The drive to Poas Volcano Lodge took us through a very high, cloudy pass, and a whole string of small – and some not-so-small – towns: Cuidad Quesada, Zacero, Sarchi, Grecia, and others. Much of out time seemed to be spent behind large semi-trailers toiling up hills. But we made it at last finding the Lodge right were Trillian told us it would be, on the east shoulder of Poas, near the village of Vara Blanca.

By this time, it was late afternoon, and we had just enough light left for one brief hike. Fortunately, there’s a very short loop here called the Evergreen Trail (which is, for some reason, blazed with blue paint), so we took that. This trail went first through a very small patch of tall forest along a creek, and then out into a cattle pasture, which sloped away into a very deep ravine. The pasture, however, had not been completely clear-cut – it had quite a few trees scattered about it, some small, but most them thick, gnarled, bromeliad-laden veterans.

There weren’t many birds to see at all in the the forest part of the walk (although my “roomie” did pick out an Emerald Toucanet!); but those trees out in the pasture were terrific habitat. some top-notch birds were flying amongst them, including Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager (very nice, that last one!). Yellow-thighed Finches (a highland specialist, I understand) were common; Rufous-collared Sparrows, everywhere. We saw one bird go by, flying with a distinctive woodpecker-like pattern of wing beats, and were able to follow to the crown of an oak tree. It turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker, the very same species we get back in Canada - but here, with a very distinctively darker plumage.

Then, there was the pair of mystery birds that kept mostly to the smaller bushes in the pasture – small, dark passerines, very hard to see, and impossible to photograph, because they were constantly flitting around at speed. They seemed to be plucking small flowers from these plants … aha (I said to myself, as the light bulb came on), these must be Slaty Flowerpiercers - a bird I have been wanting to see for years!

[Aside]Their feeding habit of these is very interesting – they’re a parasite on the relationship between nectar-producing flowers and their pollinators (like hummingbirds). Instead of going into the flower from the front end, and thereby picking up pollen to take to another plant, they use their oddly-shaped bill to pierce the base of the flower. They then lap up the nectar though this whole, without giving the flower any benefit. Later, we saw the little awl-shaped hook on their bill, confirming the ID).[/Aside]
The steep slope we were on, which made it a bit difficult to keep one’s balance at times, nonetheless had one benefit – it made it possible, sometimes, to look right into the crowns of trees downhill from us, and see birds at eye-level (or even below eye-level) that we would normally only see by straining our necks.

For example, we were lucky enough to see a family of four Golden-browed Chlorophonias this way – first time I’d ever seen anything but the undersides of that species! The Chlorophoia is a very striking, vividly-coloured bird, mixing yellow, bright green and sky blue – a bit over-the-top, really. But in those shady, often overcast conditions, I suppose the competitive pressure to stand out really makes evolution have to pull out all the stops. (I have a mental image – a harried Mother Nature digging around in big box of material, pulling out scraps to clothe birds with – “here’s a blue nape, have that, green wings, have those too, they’ll show against those yellow flanks of yours ... It clashes!?! So what if it clashes – your mates will see you, that’s the important thing! Now, move along, move along, I haven’t got all day, I’ve got about 10,000 other species to do…”)

Nothing at all wrong with the next bird of the day, the delightful Collared Whitestart – very well done-up in grey, yellow, and white, with a rufous-brown cap. A great personality they have too, always dashing about and fanning their bright white tail feathers. If I could ask the birding gods one favour, I imagine it would be to see all the members of this genus…

All and all, an extremely good 45 minute walk! And we weren’t quite done yet for the day. As the light was dimming, and we were returning to our room, we were startled by a rush of (very large) wings, and a rattling sound – a Black Guan! It was doing a display flight, right over our heads. I felt like diving into a slit trench, these things are big.
What an excellent “diversion” we were having!

Birds of this afternoon (includes the drive to Poas Volcano Lodge):

41. Eastern Meadowlark
42. Brown Jay
43. Rufous-collared Sparrow
44. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
45. Emerald Toucanet
46. Yellow-thighed Finch
47. Wilson’s Warbler
48. Prong-billed Barbet
49. Spangle-cheeked Tanager
50. Flame-throated Warbler
51. Sooty-capped Bush-tanager
52. Hairy Woodpecker
53. Slaty Flowerpiercer
54. Golden-browed Chlorophonia
55. Collared Whitestart
56. Mountain Thrush
57. Black Guan


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Day 3: Saturday, February 13 (Poas Volcano Lodge-Cuidad Colon-Poas Volcano Lodge)

(Today was mostly a “travel day”, without much time for birding. We had arranged to meet our friend in Cuidad Colon, down in the Valle Central. I didn’t know how long this trip might take; but, given the likelihood of us getting lost, we decided we would need to head out right after breakfast. This left us just about an hour and a half for another short hike, pre-breakfast.)

Once again suffering from a seriously wonky internal clock, I was awake long before any sane person would have been. Knowing, now, the pointlessness of fighting to get to sleep under these conditions, I got up, found my head lamp and flashlight, and went out for a walk in the pre-dawn dark.

The conditions outside were, in a word, interesting (or, perhaps, “challenging” might be a better choice; how about “a right pain in the butt”?). Poas Volcano, being quite a tall, wide mass of rock (by local standards), tends to collect moisture very well; this leads to frequent foggy, misty, drizzly, or downright rainy days up here – even when it is dry and sunny down in San José (only about 15km away, as the vulture flies). This particular morning, the Poas micro-climate was manifesting itself like this: looking straight up, the sky was hazy, but a few score, perhaps more, of the brighter stars were visible (all the “limbs” of Orion, for example); but, looking along a horizontal, I was surrounded by fog so thick I could barely see were I was walking. Okay, a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but visibility was maybe 10-15 metres; it was a thick, particulate kind of fog, almost like drizzle in suspension. I can only imagine that this fog was laying like a thin blanket – dense, but so shallow, that its surface was just a few m. above my head.

This didn’t bother me so much, until I started hearing a call (song?) coming out of the darkness, just down the hotel’s driveway a bit. It was some sort of nightjar, and most definitely not a Paraque! I did not know the call, but was quite sure it was not anything I had ever heard (or seen) before (given the location, I had a suspicion already, though). I followed that sound around, diligently and carefully, for about a half-hour – and I’m sure that I got within, at most, a few tens of metres of it, at times – but it was no good, didn’t see a thing, not even eye-shine! The fog was just too much – defeated me every time I got close to the bird. Shining a light into it (and I had a fairly bright one) just changed it from impenetrable murky darkness to equally impenetrable milky whiteness. After the half-hour or so, the sky began to lighten just the tiniest bit (but with no real improvement in visibility) and around then, he went quiet. I went back to the room, and got out the iPod – which confirmed that I had been chasing the elusive (well, for me, anyway!), much-sought-after Dusky Nightjar. ¡Que lastima!

For today’s pre-breakfast walk, we head straight for the much longer Oakwood trail, which plunged down – way down - the same ravine that we had seen on our brief excursion yesterday. the mist had thinned and lifted a bit (see photo #1), so visibility had improved to ~150m.

The initial part of the trail went through cattle pasture, and was therefore quite rutted, muddy, and slippery – thank goodness Poas Volcano Lodge lends out walking sticks and wellies! Once again though, because we were heading down a slope, had some great opportunities to look sideways into the crowns of trees to see birds; e.g., a couple of (near-endemic) Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatchers, perched out on a bare branch. The Bush-tanager of the day seemed to be the Common (rather than Sooty-capped), with a pair of them was leading every flock we saw. Prong-billed Barbets seemed to be numerous here - they were certainly loud and conspicuous (up until yesterday, I had seen exactly one in my life). We hadn’t had much luck at all with hummingbirds here (the Lodge, unaccountably, has no feeders), but we did finally find one that was identifiable – a spectacular Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

We didn’t have time to get even close to completing the trail, but saw enough to convince us that the entire thing would be worth doing - if we could take our time about it. We’d just have to do that tomorrow morning. (I had planned to go into Poas National Park on Sunday morning, but with so much to see here, decided we'd be better to skip it).

On the way back up to the Lodge for breakfast, though, had one more new "trip bird". We could hear a very mellow kew-kew-kew sound coming out of a narrow little bit of tall woods along the creek – something that didn’t really sound familiar, but, I thought, was likely to be a bird. DMM spotted it first – it was a male Quetzal, singing, and doing his level best to hide. (No small feat for a bird with two-foot-long bright green uppertail coverts, but they’re surprisingly good at it – the fog certainly helps! See photo #2.)

After breakfast, headed straight out to keep out to keep our rendezvous in Cuidad Colon. Our friend was a non-birder, but we were going to be going with him for a walk on the grounds of Hacienda El Rodeo, and I had read that this was the best stand of forest left in the Valle Central. Of the journey down there, perhaps the less said, the better - it was one of those things that (to borrow a phrase) “would be tedious to relate, but not half so tedious as it was to undergo.” Suffice it to say, we really learned to be sceptical about the quality of our GPS maps (lots of backtracking was required) and a journey of about 50 km took us about 2 ½ hours to complete. Oy.

So we rolled into El Rodeo at about 1100 – not a very good time of day to begin a birding walk! The contrast with the weather up on Poas remarkable – it was about 30˚ and bone-dry down here, with plenty of fallen leaves crunching underfoot. The birds (such that we saw) were very different than I had seen elsewhere in the Valle Central (on previous trips); more “dry-forest” types here, like Rufous-naped Wren, Black-headed Trogon, and White-throated Magpie-jay. In a way, we were getting a small taste of the species we were expecting to see in Guanacaste over the next four days.

There were also lots of Tropical Kingbirds, a couple of Rufous-capped Warblers, and bit of a surprise in the form of an Ovenbird – not a furnariid, but a warbler, another “friend from home”. It seemed a bit odd to see it calmly strutting around and foraging in such a dry, sunny place – back home, they’re mostly found in the deepest, darkest, most mosquito-ridden broad-leafed forests.

[Aside]We didn’t get such a great impression of the Hacienda Rodeo grounds – but I believe they can be a very good destination, we just didn’t visit under the right circumstances. For a more accurate impression of what this reserve is like, I suggest you visit Birdingcraft’s site, which has much better report on El Rodeo [/Aside]

The return to Poas Volcano Lodge was not nearly so fraught with tension as the trip down there – probably because we had learned which roads to avoid! After finally getting back there (felt like ‘home, sweet home’) at about 1630, we were too frazzled to do anything much.

But after a couple of hours of recovery, we went out on one more adventure (a very small one, this time) – dinner at Colbert. This is a fine restaurant, improbably situated in the Costa Rican countryside near Vara Blanca, only about 1 km from our hotel. It serves traditional French cuisine, albeit adapted somewhat to employ local ingredients. I thought it was quite good – they started us off with an amuse guele of rillettes du porc, and some excellent French bread; for mains, DMM had mushroom vol-au-vent, while I opted for poached tilapia (fish) mousse with lemon sabayon sauce; and for dessert, a choux-pastry ring filled with praline cream. And all this (without wine, but with taxes) came to 17 785 colones – a ridiculously low sum, about C$34.00! They also had baked goods to take away, which was handy for us (since we’d be on the road again tomorrow), so we bought a couple of sweet brioches, and a small jar of mora (local blackberry) jam.

Our only regret was that we visited Colbert at night – if we ever do get back, we will definitely try to go for lunch, for two reasons: 1) It’s a bit chilly there at night, and they have no heating in the restaurant (or so it seems) and 2) there are hummingbird feeders in their garden, and it would be nice to see these in use!

Day three birds from Poas Volcano Lodge:
58. Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher
59. Common Bush-tanager
60. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
61. Purple-throated Mountain-gem
62. Blackburnian Warbler
63. Resplendent Quetzal

And from Hacienda El Rodeo:
64. Black-bellied Whistling-duck
65. Rufous-naped Wren
66. Black-headed Trogon
67. Rufous-capped Warbler
68. Ovenbird


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Great stuff Peter - and I'm very gripped by the Quetzal - didn't see them at the Lodge.
The Oakwood trail - yes - very steep and humpy - Bellbirds were calling (again out of sight). Good to hear the fire did no lasting harm to the lodge - and the earthquake hasn't stopped them either.

Surprised there are no hummer feeders there now - there used to be several near the front door and I got several ticks from these and the magnificent tree in the garden. Why not ask if they'll put some up - we had cracking views sitting on the chairs by the door.

Brings back good memories. Thanks.

Glad to see you went to Colbert's- such a great place! Yes, during the day, the feeders attract Purple-throated Mountain-gem and Volcano, and Magnificent Hummingbirds.
Great stuff Peter - and I'm very gripped by the Quetzal - didn't see them at the Lodge.
The Oakwood trail - yes - very steep and humpy - Bellbirds were calling (again out of sight). Good to hear the fire did no lasting harm to the lodge - and the earthquake hasn't stopped them either.

Surprised there are no hummer feeders there now - there used to be several near the front door and I got several ticks from these and the magnificent tree in the garden. Why not ask if they'll put some up - we had cracking views sitting on the chairs by the door.

Halftwo -

And I, in turn, am considerably gripped by the Bellbird - maybe it was the wrong season for them? I never even heard one! And, from what people have told me, it's one of those calls that, even if you don't know what it is, you know it's something extraordinary...

No, no feeders around anywhere... perhaps just due to the reconstruction? A lot of the main building is covered in plastic sheeting at the moment...

Peter C.
Day 4, Sunday, February 14. Poas Volcano Lodge → Cabañas Cañas Castilla

Another day with, alas, a good amount of time spent (lost) in transit. We got one more crack at the highland birds at Poas Volcano Lodge, then it was off to the far north-west of Guanacaste, where we will spend the remainder of the week. Our destination was the Cabañas Cañas Castilla, near the town of La Cruz; it is about 290 km by road from Poas Volcano Lodge.

Awoke (late – almost 0600!) to absolutely appalling weather – gusty winds, blowing a steady drizzle around – in the immortal words of Alfred E. Newman, “yeccch”. But as it was the last morning we would be spending in the mountains, we knew that we’d be sorry if we didn’t go out and at least try for some birds today (well, at least, I did). So we covered ourselves with every bit of rain gear we could find, and headed out. I was keen to finish the Oakwood trail (we had just “previewed” it yesterday). I wanted to get into the patch of old-growth forest which (according to the handy information binder in our room) would be found at the far end of this loop.

The conditions were actually even worse than I had imagined – the misty rain was blowing right into our faces, all the way down the ravine, forcing us to stop and clean our glasses off every couple of minutes, if we wanted to see anything at all. (Not that there was much to see, in these circumstances!) Despite this, we did pick up a couple of birds on the way down, Yellowish Flycatcher (an Empidonax, but one that actually looks like something!) and a very yellow Silver-throated Tanager.

Upon reaching the forested portion of the trail, our seeing conditions improved considerably. Although the drizzle continued unabated, the dense, almost continuous canopy here had the effect of sopping up the precipitation, and then releasing it as large drops. It still got us wet, but as far as keeping the optics clear, this was much easier to cope with. However, even though we could see better, the density of the forest made it a bit of a challenge to find anything. Certainly, there were plenty of birds about – we could hear their contact calls here and there – but they always seemed to be coming from “somewhere just over there, see? Behind that solid wall of foliage…?” (same as it ever was…) In other words, it was a bit slow in there.

Fortunately, at the very bottom of the trail, we came to a level space; here, the canopy was very dense, and the understory considerably more open, much improving the our chances. And, serendipitously, we arrived at this spot just as a noisy mixed-species flock was crossing the path ahead. This flock seemed to consist mostly of a large group (perhaps an extended family?) of Three-striped Warblers. However there were also a few species of hangers-on, including a Ruddy Treerunner, a Spotted Barbtail (looking, and acting, much like a woodcreeper – really puzzled us for a while, that one), a few bush-tanagers – plus a number of small passerines that “got away clean”, as it were.

By this time, it was almost eight-thirty, and we had taken two hours to get this far. We had still to climb back up to the lodge, and then had a long drive to Guanacaste ahead of us; so we reluctantly moved on. The trail soon quit the woods, and started on the long climb back, first going up through another pasture (say hello to the cows, close gates behind you, watch yourself on the barbed-wire fences, they are electrified – as I discovered). We were back out into the rain/mist, so visibility was very poor once again – but this walk had one more treat in store for us. We heard (yet another) unfamiliar call coming from straight above our heads, and looked up; a pair of long, gracile birds materialized out of the fog, alit briefly in the crown of a tall oak, and then took off again. These were Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers, a very elegant bird, and one of those valuable Costa Rica/Panama highland endemics.

As we were packing up to leave, wouldn’t you know it, the weather started to improve – the rain stopped, and the ceiling of cloud lightened considerably. And, with the change, it seemed that the birds started to come out and become more active – the big bank of Heliconias outside our room were visited by a Green Hermit, and then a Violet Sabrewing (wow!), our neighbourhood Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush hopped along in front of those same flowers (in the open, no less!), a flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew in and perched in a tree beside the Reception building – and then, the Sun came out! (Arrgh!) I actually considered trying arrange to stay at Poas Volcano Lodge one more day, thinking of how much I regretted leaving at this point - but in the end decided against it, figuring that I would be more regretful of losing even one more day in Guanacaste.

The fact is, if you enjoy birds and are at all interested in photography, a place like Poas Volcano Lodge requires much more time than were able to spend. Sometimes conditions are a little - ah, challenging - but, given how frequently (and dramatically) the weather shifts, patience will be rewarded - eventually.

The drive up to Cabañas Cañas Castilla, our new ‘home’ for the next four nights, consumed most of the remainder of the day. We drove most of the way on the Carratera Interamericana (CR #1), and it was smooth sailing basically all the way to our turn-off at Sonzapote. Didn’t see much in the way of birds on the way (Red-billed Pigeon on the side of the road, Osprey overhead). We arrived at Cabañas Cañas Castilla at about 1730. Our hostess, a Swiss expatriate named Agi, checked us into our accommodation – it was called the “Peresozo” (“Sloth”) cabin. Agi then pointed up into the tree right next to our room - there was, indeed, a sloth sleeping in it. How appropriate; I looked forward to doing much the same, over the next day or two.

69. Yellowish Flycatcher
70. Silver-throated Tanager
71. Three-striped Warbler
72. Ruddy Treerunner
73. Spotted Barbtail
74. Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher
75. Green Hermit
76. Violet Sabrewing
77. Crimson-fronted Parakeet
78. Red-billed Pigeon
79. White-collared Swift
80. Osprey

Photos: 1) Looking back down the Oakwood trail, after the rain stopped. I believe the tree at the far right is the one the Silky-flycatchers stopped in. Behind it (and about 100 metres down), you can just make out the Oak Woods.
2)This bank of heliconias was about 10 m. from our front door. The Green Hermit, Sabrewing, et al., have (of course) just exited stage right...
3)Repairs from the damage caused by last year's earthquake are still proceeding - our rooms were fine, though.
4)Route from PVL to CCC.


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