I made my first trip to Costa Rica way back in 1990, long before I developed an interest in birds and natural history. At the time we were more interested in swimming, hiking, running in the forest, snorkeling, rafting, and just enjoying our first trip to Latin America. I do remember, however, hiking in the cloud forest of Monteverde and looking, without binoculars, for a red and green bird called a quetzal. We didn’t see the quetzal on that trip, but we did get a good taste of Costa Rica’s biogeographic wealth. Without knowing much about what we were seeing, we enjoyed tropical deciduous forest, mangroves, cloud forest, beaches, lowland rainforest, and some beautiful tropical rivers. Now, many years later, and after having spent about 18 years exploring many parts of the Neotropics,, it’s been a pleasure to return to one of tropical America’s great destinations to see those habitats with new eyes………and binoculars.
With a long history of nature-based tourism and well developed infrastructure, there are almost too many lodges and routes to choose from in Costa Rica. Making my usual efforts to optimize exposure to a variety of habitats, maximize our field time, and minimize our driving time, I’ve chosen a route that, to me, achieves that goal. We start our trip at the Hotel Bougainvillea on the outskirts of San Jose. While I usually don’t think of “city-based” hotels as a big part of the nature experience, the Bougainvillea is a rare exception. In addition to nice rooms, good food, and excellent service, the hotel’s garden has enough avian variety to warrant at least a few pre-breakfast hours of birding. Among the more than 50 species we’ve seen there are crimson-fronted parakeet, squirrel cuckoo, common pauraque, grayish saltator, Hoffman’s woodpecker, rufous-capped warbler, russet-naped (gray-necked) wood-rail, Lesson's (blue-crowned) motmot, rufous-naped and Cabanis' (plain) wrens, and the beautiful white-eared ground-sparrow. Not a bad way to start a trip.
The trip begins in earnest as we head west to the Pacific lowlands and the Hotel Villa Lapas, where we spend three nights. After a great lunch and a short break, we spend the afternoon on quiet side roads near the coastal town of Tarcoles. With pasture, weedy fields, second growth forest, more mature forest, and mangroves, this is usually a very birdy area. Along the edges we’ve found the Pacific race of variable seedeater, plain-breasted ground-dove (this is the best place I know to see this species), stripe-headed sparrow, groove-billed ani, yellow-bellied elaenia, tropical gnatcatcher, striped cuckoo, prothonotary warbler, and yellow-headed caracara. In the more forested areas we’ve seen rufous-naped wrens nesting in bullhorn acacias where they’re protected not only by the plants’ stout spines, but also by the Pseudomyrmex ants living within those spines. We’ve also seen rufous-and-white wren, black-headed and gartered trogons, ferruginous pygmy-owl, steely-vented hummingbird, nesting gray hawks (at their southern limit), scrub greenlet, rufous-browed peppershrike, red-legged honeycreeper, blue dacnis, and a variety of wintering migrants. With several open viewing areas, this is one of the best places in Costa Rica to see scarlet macaws, and we’ve been fortunate to see quite a few perched and flying. Though it’s a reasonably common bird by voice, it’s rare to actually see a collared forest-falcon, and we’ve lucked out in this area with scope views of a calling bird.
In addition to the nice rooms, very good food, and lovely grounds, Villa Lapas is set amidst excellent forest and has great wildlife. Spiny-tailed iguanas, some of them quite large, are tame, Central American agoutis are occasionally on the lawns, proboscis and greater white-lined bats literally hang out on some structures, and at night we’ve seen kinkajou, spectacled owl, boat-billed heron, common pauraque, house gecko, and marine toad. By day, slaty-tailed trogon, rose-throated becard, nesting bare-throated tiger-herons, buff-rumped warbler, many species of flycatcher, fiery-billed aracari, yellow-throated toucan, scaly-breasted hummingbird, long-billed hermit, buff-rumped warbler, painted bunting, riverside wren, piratic flycatcher, yellow-green vireo, and dozens of other species have been seen here.
While at Villa Lapas, we spend several productive mornings at Carara National Park, a 13,000-acre tract of lush rainforest about ten minutes away. Here the easily managed trails provide access to excellent habitat rich in neotropical wonders. Morpho and owl butterflies, anole lizards, Heliconias, Cecropia, figs, passionflower (and many species of Heliconius butterfly that feed on them as caterpillars), prayer plants, lianas, and more provide the basis for many great natural history lessons……and the birds aren’t bad either.
While Hoffman’s woodpecker is common at Carara, particularly on edges and in second growth, and while lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers are reasonably easily to find, two regional endemics, rufous-winged woodpecker and golden-naped woodpecker, are on the rare side, and I've been excited to see them both well here on several visits. While it might be a challenge to see every species in just two mornings, there are no less than five trogons found at Carara – Baird’s, black-throated, slaty-tailed, gartered, and black-headed - and while we usually see at least four, occasionally we see them all. Antbirds are well represented with black-hooded and barred antshrikes, dusky, bicolored, and chestnut-backed antbirds, slaty and dot-winged antwrens, and black-faced antthrush. While never easy to see, the area can be very good for manakins with four species possible. On one trail, a small lek of orange-collared manakins has been fairly reliable for nice views. Elsewhere, we've seen long-tailed, red-capped, and blue-crowned manakins. Another group of small and colorful birds that's more well represented in Costa Rica (and particularly in the Carara area) than any other place on Earth are the euphonias. Like the manakins, they aren't all easy, but we've had good luck in finding yellow-throated, scrub, yellow-crowned, and the regional endemic spot-crowned. We’ve also seen widespread but relatively uncommon birds such as ruddy-tailed flycatcher, white-whiskered puffbird, royal flycatcher, great tinamou, rufous-tailed jacamar, northern bentbill, brown-hooded parrot, and buff-throated foliage-gleaner on Carara’s trails.
From a biogeographic standpoint, the Carara area is fascinating. While there's a dry season here, it’s not as dry as in areas to the northwest and southeast, and the vegetation is mostly evergreen. To the northwest, in Guanacaste province, one finds classic tropical deciduous forest with a very different suite of flora and fauna. Somewhat similar habitat is found to the southeast across the border on the Pacific coast of Panama. Confined by these coastal dry forests as well as by the mountains of central Costa Rica to the east, the lowland evergreen forest of the region is something of an “island”. Islands are known for having endemic species, and that's just what one finds here. Several lowland endemics that prefer evergreen forest and cannot venture out into the dry forests or cross the mountains are found here. The ones we’ve seen in and near Carara include fiery-billed aracari, Cherrie’s tanager, black-hooded antshrike, golden-naped woodpecker, Baird’s trogon, orange-collared manakin, riverside wren, spot-crowned euphonia, and Costa Rican swift.
Carara provides good opportunities to see mammals, and we’ve had interesting experiences watching nine-banded armadillo, Central American agouti, variegated squirrel, mantled howler monkey, white-throated capuchin, white-nosed coati, and brown-throated three-toed sloth doing their things. Capuchin monkeys are always interesting to watch, particularly for their omnivorous foraging behaviors. While they're frequently seen eating fruit or searching leaves and breaking dead sticks for insects, they also investigate cavities and other nooks and crannies for birds, eggs, insects, lizards, and the occasional mammal. While watching one capuchin in Carara, we noticed it eating something that appeared red and gooey. After a few minutes we realized it was a small mammal, most likely a mouse-opossum.
From the Pacific coast we head east into the cloud forests of the Cordillera Talamanca. On our way to Savegre Mountain Hotel, we make a lunch stop at Paraiso Quetzal where the food is hearty and tasty. Here we get a nice introduction to the uniqueness of the region, a part of the Chiriqui Highlands of eastern Costa Rica and western Panama that is well known for its large number of endemics. The main attraction at their hummingbird feeders is the “swarm” of fiery-throated hummingbirds, a species with an amazing rainbow of flashy colors on the throat and breast. We usually have our first views of long-tailed and black-and-yellow silky flycatchers, large-footed and yellow-thighed finches, black-billed nightingale-thrush, and, occasionally, golden-browed chlorophonia. On the steep descent into the San Gerardo de Dota Valley, sooty robins are fairly common on the roadside.
Savegre Mountain Hotel is one of those very special places in the neotropics. While the most striking feature for me is access to beautiful cloud forest, the fine service, wonderful rooms, pleasantly cool temperatures, and very good food are nice fringe benefits. The hotel grounds provide good edge habitat where flame-colored tanager, long-tailed silky flycatcher, sulphur-winged parakeet, black-capped flycatcher, ruddy-capped nightingale-thrush, slaty flowerpiercer, white-throated mountain-gem, and volcano and scintillant hummingbirds all can be seen well. As we enter the more forested areas, but still with some edge or second growth effect, we find large-footed and yellow-thighed finches, black guan, chestnut-capped brushfinch, and, occasionally, buff-fronted quail-dove, spotted wood-quail, or scaled antpitta working the understory shrubs or leaf litter. Fruiting Melastomes attract spangle-cheeked and silver-throated tanagers, paltry tyrannulet, the local race of emerald toucanet, black-thighed grosbeak, sooty-capped and common chlorospingus (formerly bush-tanagers), and wintering Swainson’s thrushes.
True to its service-oriented form, Savegre provides jeep transport to get us up the steepest and less well forested part of the mountain and into some gorgeous cloud forest with nice trails. The “deep forest” birds found amidst the towering oaks include a good number of Chiriqui endemics. This is mixed flock territory, and a canopy group may contain ruddy treerunner, buffy tuftedcheek, flame-throated warbler, yellow-winged and brown-capped vireos, spot-crowned woodcreeper, scaly-throated foliage-gleaner, ochraceous wren, and barred becard. Understory birds can include spotted barbtail, black-cheeked warbler, and the very skulky and hard to see streak-breasted treehunter. Though they may briefly associate with a flock, there are several birds that tend to be loners. These include dark and ochraceous pewees, black-faced solitaire, and the super cute collared redstart. One of the things that I’ve been very pleased with is that not only have we had good luck in finding all of these birds, but we’ve also enjoyed really nice views which isn’t easy in what can be fast moving mixed flocks.
Other special birds that we've seen in the area include the southernmost race of red-tailed hawk, ornate hawk-eagle, and two hard-to-see species, dusky nightjar and Costa Rican pygmy-owl. While high elevation cloud forest isn't as productive as lowland rainforest for mammal sightings, we've had good luck in the past in finding Central American spider monkey, Mexican hairy porcupine, and red-tailed squirrel.
Another element that makes Savegre such a special spot is the interesting regional biogeography. The bioregion known as the Chiriqui Highlands begins a short ways south of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border and runs mostly eastward to about the area of El Valle de Anton in western Panama. This series of foothills and mountains above 1000 meters are highlighted by a core area with elevations from 2000 – 3800 meters. This core area - with cool temperatures, weather that is often cloudy or rainy, and rich forests with some very large trees and plentiful epiphytes – stands, like the Pacific coast rainforest, as a unique island in the region. It's an Endemic Bird Area with about 50 species of birds found nowhere else.
Of course, you can’t talk about Savegre without mentioning what many consider to be the star attraction of the area, the resplendent quetzal. While the area is known for being a good spot to see the quetzals, there are no guarantees as the odds of seeing the bird well vary with the season, the availability of their preferred foods, and nesting activity. So I haven't taken for granted our amazing luck during almost every visit when we've enjoyed the kind of views you dream about, with the birds in great light and perched closely for a long time. On one visit in July, the aguacatillo trees were in fruit, and females, immatures and one male were visiting pretty regularly in the mornings. On other visits, from February to April, the pair was in the midst of courtship and nesting, and, in addition to sightings of the male's long tail covert feathers sticking out of the nest cavity, we had the pair sitting beautifully near the nest site for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. At times when the Savegre birds are not nesting, we've still seen a number of quetzals feeding in the forest as well as birds at active nests at Paraiso Quetzal. I think the pictures sum up the experience pretty well.
Leaving Savegre is difficult, but the departure is made easier knowing that we're heading to another of Costa Rica's great nature lodges, Rancho Naturalista. At about 2300 feet on the Caribbean slope, Rancho offers yet more great lodging, good food, friendly service, and nice birds and wildlife. With a combination of feeders, open edges, and good forest trails, Rancho has a local list of almost 400 species. Depending on the season, the hummingbird feeders attract green-crowned brilliant, crowned woodnymph, white-necked jacobin, green thorntail, green-breasted mango, green hermit, bronze-tailed plumeleteer, violet sabrewing, and rufous-tailed hummingbird. Another hummer attraction, and one that is now quite common at neotropical lodges, is Stachytarpheta franzii, a shrubby verbena with an abundance of small purple flowers that nectar-seeking hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies love. While activity varies, we've had good luck in watching black-crested coquette, green thorntail, violet-headed hummingbird, stripe-throated hermit, bananaquit, hummingbird-mimic moths, and various butterflies in great light at close range on these flowers. While those have been fun, the bird that Rancho is famous for, and one that really likes the verbena, is the gorgeous snowcap. This diminutive, chestnut-purple bird has a gleaming white crown and a presence that makes it hard not to just stare in wonder. But wait, there's more! Perhaps unique to Rancho is a series of small, quiet pools along a forest stream where hummers come to bathe in the late afternoon. This amazing spot, while set in beautiful forest, is where we see familiar species in a whole new light, literally. If you've had the unique experience of looking down at birds you're used to looking up at, you know what I'm talking about. They can sometimes look like an entirely different species. The pool hummers here are purple-crowned fairy, crowned woodnymph, bronze-tailed plumeleteer, snowcap, green hermit, and white-necked jacobin. Less common at the pools are visits by several understory skulkers such as tawny-throated leaftosser, dull mantled and Zeledon's antbirds, and scaly-breasted wren.
Rancho's entrance road, edges, and banana feeders are great for Montezuma oropendula, scarlet-rumped cacique, Passerini's tanager (one of the more common and striking birds here), orange-billed and black-striped sparrows, gray-headed chachalaca, black-cheeked woodpecker, masked and black-crowned tityras, long-tailed tyrant, gray-capped flycatcher, streak-headed woodcreeper, and many others. In the rich forest we've seen stripe-breasted, bay, and black-throated wrens, white-ruffed, white-collared, and white-crowned manakins, slaty-capped flycatcher, rufous mourner, gray-headed piprites, brown-billed scythebill, olive-backed and tawny-capped euphonias, checker-throated and slaty antwrens, dusky antbird, Carmiol's tanager, russet antshrike, spotted woodcreeper, and tawny-chested flycatcher, an endemic found only on the Caribbean slope of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In the early morning, a "bug light" attracts up to twenty species, including red-throated ant-tanager, white-breasted wood-wren, plain brown and spotted woodcreepers, plain antvireo, slaty antwren, orange-billed sparrow, bright-rumped attila, and Kentucky warbler and golden-crowned warblers. Among the insects and arthropods that come to the light at night are many moths and beetles, dobsonflies, and my favorite so far, a moth, presumably day-flying, that was part of the complex of Lepidoptera mimicking tiger Heliconius butterflies. One of the highlights for me one day at Rancho was hearing what sounded like a bicolored hawk calling in the forest. As luck would have it, a trail headed in the direction of the calling bird, and it didn't take long for us to confirm our assumption.....and watch this small forest Accipiter fill its crop to near bursting for about thirty minutes as it devoured its avian prey. It turns out that there's a nesting pair on the property, and we've subsequently enjoyed great views on every visit.
The general tropical nature of the Caribbean slope at Rancho - with anoles, morpho butterflies, red-tailed and variegated squirrels, smoky jungle frogs, marine toads, and lots of neat plants and insects - provides yet another rewarding view into Costa Rica's rich biogeography, and, by the time we leave, we usually have a pretty good understanding of the collective details that make up the country's nature-based "big picture".
Costa Rica's reputation for high quality nature-based tourism is well-deserved. While indulging in the enjoyment of nature is great fun, doing so in a place with superb infrastructure and some of the kindest, most professional, and talented local staff I've had the pleasure of working with makes for a world-class experience. I'll be looking forward to many more visits to this special country.
White-eared ground-sparrow, rufous-naped wren, collared redstart, black-faced solitaire, and golden-olive woodpecker by Elizabeth Lauer.