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Costa Rica - Volcan Poas & Guanacaste (1 Viewer)

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Tuesday, February 16 - Santa Rosa N.P. & Punta Morros

One of the reference books we had brought with us to Costa Rica was Wheatley & Brewer’s Where to Watch Birds in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This book includes a short description of Santa Rosa National Park by Mr. David Brewer, in which he describes the road down to Playa Naranjo from the park HQ as a good place to look for Double-striped Thick-knee. He also describes it as a rough track “posted only 4WD, but with care and some disrespect for one’s exhaust ... perfectly negotiable by car." I really wanted a thick-knee, so we decided to try it.

Well, we did have a 4WD (if a tiny one) but let me tell you, it was barely negotiable in that! It’s not that Tim was ever in danger of getting stuck – the road was very firm - but there were places where they seemed to have paved it with the largest and sharpest stones available, and I started to think we might blow a tire. Anyway, by the time we were heading out on this road, it was getting on to about 1030 in the morning, and increasingly hot, so bird activity was really dropping off. So, as it seemed that we were doing a lot of tedious bouncing around for little or no reward, we decided to turn back after about four or five (very slow) kilometres.

However, we wanted to get something out of this drive, so we found a place that was wide enough to pull over (and still allow others to get past), and continued on a few hundred metres on foot. This way, at least, I figured we’d have some chance of finding things by ear. But “things” were pretty quiet along here – aside from some more Nutting’s, and a poor lonely gnatcatcher who seemed to have lost his flock, we didn’t find much of anything. I was particularly disappointed in the complete lack of any raptors here. I mean, we were in relatively open country (much of it was savannah-like), and it was a nice sunny day – why wasn’t anything up there soaring!? I thought, perhaps, that they might have been staying low on account of the wind.

But then, on the way back to the car, we had another one of those incredibly lucky breaks. Just off to the side of the road, I heard another rustling in the leaves - louder, this time. Out of the corner of my eye, I just caught the movement of some sort of animal – a dark shape, scuttling along the ground. From the way it moved, I was almost sure it was a lizard of some kind. Took a look with the bins anyway; saw that is was a bird after all, but apparently one that didn’t want to fly too much. I noted that it had a long tail, cocked up slightly – upperparts of grey, with a darker smudge on the crown - a brick-red breast (“just like a robin” said DMM) – a decurved bill – and, wait a second ... an eye set in a mask of funky blue facial skin - holy [another colourful expletive deleted] Batman!, it’s a Lesser Ground-cuckoo! I’m not normally one to set “targets”, but for this trip, this definitely was one; the kind of thing I knew I wanted to see, but don’t really dare hope for.

Well, Tim survived the bumps back to the nice paved blacktop (Aaahhhhh! we all sighed when we got to it; well, not Trillian, she was turned off at the time). For lunch, we found a relatively cool spot, in a shady ravine; and then headed out for the highway, stopping at the kiosk on the way to fork over or US$20 entrance fee – a bargain, at twice the price!

On our way back "home" to Castilla, we took the road down towards Cuajiniquil again. I figured, we’d come all this way to a “tropical vacation destination,” we’d better bloody well at least look at a beach one time (lest people back home think we’re odd or something). It wasn’t that far to the ocean, anyway, only about 10 km. off the main highway. I was surprised, though, at how much of a vertical drop we had to negotiate – when you’re drive around near Santa Rosa N.P., the terrain is largely flat, so it’s easy to forget that you’re on a plateau about 200 m. above sea level.

When we reach the Pacific, we did find a beach, of sorts – but not at all the “touristy” kind. In fact, it was a rather smelly one, at an unnamed fishing settlement near Punta Morros (Of course, you all know what I was thinking: “Stench! Decaying organic matter! Possibility of shorebirds!”). There were a few frigatebirds cruising about, and a sandbar in the bay with some gulls, terns and Brown Pelicans loafing on it. However (and isn’t it always the way): today, on the one day that it might actually have been useful, the scope, which had weighed down my luggage , and which I had lugged half-way across Costa Rica – was back at the cabañas, leaning against the wall in our room! Oop, ack.

Mind you, as we were now out in the open, and therefore contending with unobstructed Guanacaste gale-force winds (the Pacific was no match for them – I’m serious, we could see the waves being blown back out to sea!), I suspect that it would not have been terribly useful. We just walked along the shore to get as close to the sandbar as possible, and were able pick out the birds with binoculars – Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls, mostly. The only shorebirds in attendance, as far as we could tell, were a dozen or so American Oystercatchers, always nice to see.

There may have been more to see here, but it was a question of “return on investment” (of time), which seemed to be rather low. Besides, it was approaching siesta time …

February 16: Birds of Santa Rosa N. P. and Punta Morros
110. Magnificent Frigatebird
111. Crested Bobwhite
112. Muscovy Duck
113. Stripe-headed Sparrow
114. Banded Wren
115. Nutting’s Flycatcher
116. Western Tanager
117. Black-and-white Warbler
118. Bay-breasted Warbler
119. Lesser Ground-cuckoo
120. Brown Pelican
121. American Oystercatcher
122. Great Blue Heron
123. Laughing Gull
124. Royal Tern

1) Small lizard at Santa Rosa (possibly juv. Ctenosaur? going by the black stripes across the body.)
2) Don’t you just hate this? When you really have to go, and you find that it’s already occupied?
3) Tim and me on the Playa Naranjo road – not a representative shot of the road really, this section was atypically smooth...
4) Nutting’s flycatcher in Santa Rosa – there was something in this stump that he was really interested in.
5) Somewhat wonky-looking Frigatebird in the bay near Punta Morros.


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Well-known member
Another great installment Peter - I'm so loving this account, loved the tinamou. Will definitely have to make it there sooner rather than later now!

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Tuesday, February 16 – Cabañas Cañas Castilla

Back at la Cabaña Perezoso, we lazed about in the afternoon for a bit before hitting the trails again, briefly. It wasn't really a birding walk either, I just wanted to climb the highest hill on the finca to take in the view. From there (so we had been told) it was possible to see Ometepe Island, across the border in Nicaragua. Ometepe is a volcanic island, with two very classically-shaped volcanic cones (Concepción and Maderas), rising straight out of Lago de Nicaragua.

The climb was mostly through cattle pasture (met some horses too – and their attending flock of “Equine Egrets”), up to a mostly bare hilltop. As such, this trail was not so interesting, bird-wise, although we did get a flock of Groove-billed Anis in the orange grove. Also, we were able to confirm that the “amazon-type” birds we’d been seeing around here were in fact Yellow-naped Parrots - so that was good.

By the time we reach the crown of the little hill (only about 500 m. above sea level), the sun was definitely thinking about setting; fortunately, we’d had the presence of mind to bring along headlamps for the hike back, just in case. To the north, there was a deep haze overlaying everything; we could see the nearer parts of Lago de Nicaragua, but Ometepe was completely hidden. The view to south, on the other hand, was fine, and we could see Volcán Orosi very well.

Not being one to every want to retrace the same route, if it could be avoided, I suggested that we head back to our room along a different way. As things turned out, my choice of track did not go quite the direction I expected it to, so we were temporarily - well, not lost, of course; I was leading the way, and, as you know, men are never lost - I would prefer to say that we were temporarily “in an ambiguous spatial relationship with our destination.”

Anyway, as I mentioned, it was a good thing we’d brought he lamps, because we were still slogging our way back ‘home’ across the cattle pasture as dusk fell. (Also, a good thing that we’d learned our lesson about chiggers, and applied plenty of DEET to our ankles before setting out!) Eventually, we ended up at a very familiar place – the same creek bed where we’d seen that first tinamou, just a day-and-a-half ago. From there, it was a trivial walk back to our room.

One positive thing that came out of this delay was, since it was getting quite dark by now, we finally got to see a Paraque – actually, several! Just like their diurnal counterparts, they seemed to prefer the “gallery” forest along the creek. We could pick out their eye-shine, and to some extent the plumage, with the headlamps; but it was best to just shut off our lights, stand still, and wait for them to fly by. In the late evening not-quite-dark, most of the bird was completely invisible – all we could see were their white wing flashes, floating through the air unsupported, like a pair of large, white moths flying in formation. Beautiful!

Birds at Cabañas Cañas Castilla, Feb. 16:
125. Green Heron
126. Groove-billed Ani
127. Yellow-naped Parrot
128. Common Paraque

1) Howler mother with young
2) Horses at Castilla – don’t know how the Cattle Egrets escaped the picture, they were everywhere.
3) Volcán Orosi
4) Countryside around Castilla at sunset – spot the birdie!
5) A distant photo of the volcanoes on Ometepe - taken next day from the highway near La Cruz; the nearer of the two peaks is about 35 km. away.


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Wednesday, February 17: La Rincon de la Vieja

Our penultimate day in Costa Rica, and therefore our last chance for a major outing. We opted for “Rincon”, a National Park that straddles the Cordillera de Guanacaste; partly because the habitat there was notably different than what we’d seen so far on this trip, and also partly to see the famous “mud pots” and other volcanic features there.

We woke up very early indeed for the trip to Rincon, about quarter to five. I knew that it was about an 80 km drive to the entrance, and that the last 15 km of this would be along a gravel road of unknown quality (that is, the bit off CR #1 to the park, via the village of Curabande.) If at all possible, I didn’t want to waste any of the “good” morning light in transit.

So we drove most of the way in the dark, and hence didn’t see much on the way down (except one large, unidentified snake – see above). We did have one unusual incident though – a very brief encounter with the Security forces (a sort of border patrol), who stopped us at a checkpoint near Sta. Rosa; no big deal, they just swept our backseat with their lights (I presume, to make sure we weren’t smuggling people) and then we were on our way.

Just before the turn up to Curabande, we finally saw a raptor that was not a vulture or caracara - a small buteo-like bird standing on a power line. It was still a bit dim at this point, the sun being just behind the mountains, so it was a challenge to ID this one - but we eventually decided that it was a sub-adult Gray Hawk.

Once we were on our way up the road to the park, we found it to be not so bad after all, for most of its length. It was only on the higher portion, at Hacienda Guachipelin and beyond, that it was a little rough. As we approached the park boundary itself, I got the distinct impression that we were crossing another kind of boundary at the same time – a line between two distinct climatic zones. And it was not at gradual, this division; behind us, the Sun shone brightly on the dry NW Pacific lowlands – right in front of us, a wall of white cloud clung to the west side of the Cordillera, and we could tell it was raining.

The only real evidence of any blurring of this line was the rainbow we could see to the west, the product of some of this rain being blown downhill by those infernal winds.

1) Map of route to Rincon de la Vieja
2) Countryside immediately below the volcano…
3) … and at the volcano. By about 11 o’clock, this lot would be nearly full.


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Wednesday, February 17: La Rincon de la Vieja (continued)

We arrived at the park entrance, Las Pailas sector, at 0700. (Las Pailas = “the cauldrons”. The name refers to the boiling pools in the area, where “La Vieja” lets off some steam). Our timing was perfect – we were the only people in the parking area, and there was a little “Abierto” sign hanging from the gate. We went in, paid at the little kiosk there, and headed over to the trail leading to the ‘caldrons’ themselves. Unfortunately, the entrance to this trail was roped off – no explanation as to why – so we just went on a different one instead, the Catarata Escondida (“Hidden Waterfall”) trail. This one looked more promising (for birds) anyway, as it headed up the mountain a bit, into the tall forest around its base. There were many small streams coming down from volcano, and just maybe, one of these would have a Sunbittern in it for us. (Hope springs eternal…)

At first, though, this trail was a considerable disappointment. For the first couple of kilometres or so, it was the most birdless place I’d ever been in Costa Rica, and that includes downtown San Jose! In that distance, we found exactly three birds: a Black Phoebe (at its usual post, keeping watch from a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river) and two Ruddy Woodcreepers. And it wasn’t as though there were lots of birds “off over there” that we could hear but not see – it was eerily quite along this stretch of trail. I think we heard just one bird other than the ones we saw – weird. However, having come this far, we pressed on, going down a deep ravine, crossing a suspension footbridge at the bottom (no Sunbitterns here, darn it!) and climbing up the other side. I was impressed by how different the habitat was from the typical Guanacaste forest, just a few km. back down the road – very lush, evergreen trees, with lianas hanging down, and ferns in the understory. Amazing, the difference a couple of hundred metres of elevation makes.

It was difficult to tell which way we were going, but it seemed that we were skirting the lower slopes of the volcano in a clockwise direction – because the path, after climbing up from the bridge, started to go steeply back down again. (I guessed that we were just cutting across some of the many rivers that radiate out from the peak.) This descent went on for quite a while, which was a bit disturbing (since what goes down, must inevitably be hauled back up again). We stopped to rest for a bit, and have a rejuvenating granola bar, at a place which had some large rocks for sitting. I took the opportunity to cache the scope and tripod (which were quite useless in here, don’t know why I had lugged them along) behind one of these.

It was right here, though, that our luck began to change, at last – we started to hear many contact calls coming from birds moving around just down-slope a bit. So, we just sat where we were for a few minutes, and kept a sharp eye out for anything crossing the trail. The first bird to emerge looked intriguing – had an “understory-dweller” kind of look to it, with a big eye, eye-ring, olive-brown back … hopped around like a thrush … oh. Very much, indeed, like a Swainson’s Thrush – a bird that is very common in the understory of the boreal forests of Canada. (Like us, just visiting.)

The next birds, however, were much more interesting – they didn’t look familiar at all! What’s more, their behaviour was very different from most of the birds we’re used to. They walked – tentatively – out onto path; first two, then three – then these darted into cover on the other side, but were quickly followed by another four - then a couple more came - obviously a very social species. They were pudgy, dark birds with small white spots on their backs and flanks, and an very small crest on their heads – Spotted Wood-quail, apparently, very nice! I just couldn’t believe my luck with this group, on this trip.

We could still hear lots of calls coming from down there, and hadn’t seen the source of them yet, so we decided we'd have to get closer. It turned out to be a flock consisting of mostly of Golden Crowned Warblers, plus few hangers-on (a pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers, and the ubiquitous Rufous-capped Warblers). It didn’t seem that there was much more in the way of variety here, so we moved on, out of this ravine – and it get very quiet again. However, it seemed that birds in this park were not so much sparse as they were tightly clumped – because after a brief space, we came upon a similar flock, but with a bit more variety. In addition to the two warbler species mentioned above, in this had a pair of Red-crowned Ant-tanagers, some Long-tailed Manakins (full-adult males this time), and a Wood Thrush.

Just as we thought we had exhausted the possibilities of this spot, and were preparing to move on, an extraordinary sound stopped us. It was coming from somewhere up there in the canopy, so we assumed it must be a bird call, but not like any I’d ever heard before. It was a loud, mechanical sort of grating noise. The best I can do to describe it is this: imagine a toddler, but a giant’s toddler, dragging a huge tin cup along the wooden bars of a gargantuan crib – cla-a-a-ack, cra-a-a-ack, cla-a-a-a-ack cra-a-a-ack, it went, up and down. (I haven’t even seen a crib since I was three of four years old – do they still have wooden bars?). Anyway, whatever it was, it was odd. With some diligent searching, I was eventually able to discover the source, through a small gap in the canopy – it was a Yellow-eared Toucanet, bowing and raising his bill as he uttered this call, in what I assume was a territorial display.

We never did get all the way to the “Hidden Waterfall” – birding really is incompatible with hiking, and the morning was wearing on – and had to settle on the “Hidden Creek”, which appears right out of the hillside, and disappears into the ground again shortly after. (Not sure why water moves underground here – possibly in old lava tubes?) This point is notable for two things: 1) there was a Louisiana Waterthrush, the first I'd ever seen in Costa Rica, and 2) it was the only place, in the entire week in Costa Rica, that we were bothered by flying insects – in this case black flies. Gave me cause to wonder (not for the first time, by any means!) at the lack of mosquitoes in forests here – astonishing.

On the way back to the ranger station, we started to run into a few pairs of hikers coming the other way, which made me glad we’d come so early. One couple asked us how far it was, still, to the falls - had to tell them sorry, haven’t a clue! Remembered to “uncache” the scope as we went, and found one more neat bird nearby, a Blue-crowned Motmot. On our return to the car park, it became instantly apparent that this was indeed a very popular place – it was practically full! Many of the vehicles were small SUVs like Tim, but there were also quite a few small- and medium-sized tour buses.

We enjoyed our lunch on a picnic table at the ranger station – there were some magpie-jays around, but, contrary to some anecdotes I had heard, they did not attempt to make off with our food. Afterwards, we went off to tour the (now unbarred) Las Pailas trial, which was, by now, absolutely chock full of people. (On our way out, we had to wait about five minutes to cross a footbridge, because of the steady stream of high-school kids coming the other way.) It was obviously one of the favoured destinations for day tours – we could see that many of these visitors belonged to various tribes of the “Wristband Nation,” for example. But I can certainly understand the attraction of the place for them – beaches must get boring after a while, it’s an easy morning’s drive from some of the places on the Nicoya peninsula, and it’s certainly something different! Sulphurous, boiling ponds, vents shooting steam into the air – sort of a miniature Yellowstone, if that means anything to you. Worth a stop, I would say, but try to do it early!

Birds of Rincon de la Vieja (and environs):
129. Grey Hawk
130. Black Phoebe
131. Ruddy Woodcreeper
132. Swainson’s Thrush
133. Spotted Wood-quail
134. Golden-crowned Warbler

135. Red-crowned Ant-tanager
136. Wood Thrush
137. Yellow-eared Toucanet
138. Louisiana Waterthrush
139. Blue-crowned Motmot
140. Black-throated Green Warbler
141. Band-tailed Pigeon

1) DMM and very large strangler fig tree – just off to my left, and up about 30 m., is that elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet.
2) The Hidden Creek, disappearing into the ground right beneath my feet.
3) Mud boiling at Las Pailas.
4) Volcán Orosi catching the clouds
5) One of the the many kinds of colourful flowering trees along CR #1.


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Thursday, February 18: Cabañas Cañas Castilla to Daniel Obuder International Airport

Departure day – final morning in Costa Rica. However, not wanting to let any time go to waste, we managed to squeeze in one final walk – and one last lifer.

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 1145 this morning. Even taking into account the time needed to check out, drive to Liberia, return The Infernal Machine, and check-in at the desk the requisite two hours ahead (us being the responsible citizens that we are), that still left about 1½ hours for a morning hike.

What I really wanted, was to go back up the Rio Sonzapote a bit, to the place that we’d seen the ant swarm on Monday morning; we’d done so well there the first time, I hoped there might be some other goodies for us there now. (Also, it was a very short walk). Alas, though the columns of army ants were still there, the army ant followers were not – nary a “chip” to be heard. We moved along, further upstream, past the Boat-billed Heron tree. There, a fellow guest had assured us, there was a widening in the river, in which resided a big Mortlet’s crocodile. Well, though we were fairly sure that we found the correct spot, no croc did we see. I did see one interesting new mammal here, though – a trio of neotropical otters, just poking their heads above water near the far bank; I am given to understand they’re an endangered species here, so that was cool. Orange-fronted Parakeets were unusually close and in the open on the way back downstream, so DMM got some good photos – we usually have no luck at all with parrots, they’re so good at hiding themselves in the crowns of trees… Oh, and I saw one more “new for the trip” bird, a Mangrove Swallow coursing low over the water.

Back at the cabin, not much to do but throw bags in the car (we’d packed yesterday afternoon), pay up, and go – we were on the road by 0802. I will spare you the melancholy details of the whole trip back to the international airport – these days have a dreary sameness about them (and most departures from this routine, should they occur, are likely to be unwelcome!), so there is little to say. Oh, I suppose I should mention, that if you are of a mind to kill time at an airport by wandering about the parking lot, peering intently into the surrounding fields through binoculars, it may or may not get you any new birds, but it is an excellent way to attract the attention of any security officers who may be on patrol.

There was, however, one final surprise in store for us on this trip. It happened after we had boarded our plane, "safely stowed our cabin baggage under the seat in front of us, returned our seat backs to the upright...," etc, and "pushed back" to taxi. We were stopped for a few minutes on the apron, waiting, as the captain put it, "for incoming traffic to clear" (good idea, that!). From my window seat, I could look out at a broad stretch of grass between the taxiway and the runway proper – and there, my attention was caught by a tallish, brown, streaky thing, standing beside a runway marker of some kind. It appeared to have disproportionally long legs, and a thick beak … there followed a brief, manic struggle to extricate the bins from the carry-ons, and much craning of necks (the poor woman in the seat next to us must have thought we were quite round the bend). But: before the plane started moving again, we were able to confirm that this was, indeed, our much-sought-after Double-striped Thick-knee. Talk about last-minute cramming!

New birds, Feb. 18:
142. Mangrove Swallow
143. Double-striped Thick-knee

Summing up: Great trip, which I suppose goes without saying. Aside from the fact that I am getting more and more convinced that car rental agencies are run by the Prince of Darkness himself, my biggest complaint was the mysterious disappearance of gallo pinto from breakfast buffets. (I have been doing my best to avoid the use of emoticons in this report – but if were to use a “winky” in here, that would be the place for it.)

Bird totals – 143 overall, the “compilation set” of DMM’s obs and mine. Definitely a trip more about quality than quantity - but, what quality! For me, twenty lifers, pretty amazing for a 4th visit. Even more amazing, I thought, was the number of new birds for Costa Rica – 55! Many of these were migrants, familiar to me from back home; for example, 11 of the 16 species of wood-warblers in the overall total. For anyone coming from off-continent, though, it gives you some idea of how much of North America’s avifauna you can see while here – provided you visit in winter, of course.

¡Hasta luego!

Peter C.


Well-known member
I am going to miss having no new posts of yours to read Peter, they have been a real treat. So pleased that you had your last minute lifer!

Thank you for posting such a great account.

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
One of the best written reports I ever read - great stuff!


Hello Mike,

Thanks for that.

Hong Kong is a destination of great interest to me; as far as my experience goes, Asian birds are terra incognita. And, even way over here in parochial ol' Canada, we've heard of the Mai Po marshes ... *sigh* ... a goal for another (and, I'm afraid, far-off) year.

"Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo,
So little time, so much to know"

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Shame you had to head home so soon, I was enjoying that!

Well, James, if you liked that, stay tuned for my next, the epic "Australia, on just 333 1/3 km. a day" report ;).

Don't hold your breath, though. I just looked back over this thread, and I see that it took me almost four weeks to write - about just a single week (ye gods). The Australia trip was 28 days, it may take me years...


Well-known member
Can't wait for the Australia write-up Peter and if it takes a while to write it -just means there's longer to enjoy reading it!
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
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