Sunday, April 30, 2017

Birds on the WINGS Costa Rica Tour in Spring

Somehow, I ended up taking a lot of bird photos on my Costa Rica in Spring tour this past March – so many that I thought I’d do a blog with just the bird photos. I wanted to also mention that I have another, slightly shorter tour to Costa Rica this coming late July with a couple spaces still open.

This March tour stays at six different lodges, while my July tour goes to only five, mostly different ones. The one place that both have in common is the Savegre River Valley and the Cerro de la Muerte area, famous for its large population of Resplendent Quetzals. When designing this exciting summer tour a few years ago, I wanted to make it significantly different from the spring tour (one should definitely come to Costa Rica at least twice!). But I also decided one just cannot come on any birding tour to Costa Rica and miss the most magnificent members of the family Trogonidae, and considered by some to be one of the world’s most spectacular birds. This past month we saw five and heard three or four others in our one full day here.

I had a co-leader-in-training with me on this tour, Luke Seitz, even though we had only eight participants. With Luke’s extra help, almost everyone saw every bird, and Luke even had the time to take some stunning photos with his high-end photography setup.

I’ll just be posting what I got here with my comparatively crude Canon PowerShot SX60HS, such as this Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, which in the darker afternoon light and backlit sky was difficult to photograph. We saw these in several places, this first one being on the drive down the Savegre River valley our first afternoon.

Savegre Mountain Lodge had a few hummingbird feeders, but there were so many flowers blooming this year, there weren’t many birds coming to them. This White-throated Mountain-gem also worked hard to keep many of them away from one feeder.

This Spangle-cheeked Tanager kept returning to the deck outside the restaurant windows, I think to fight its reflection.

We saw several Black Guans, mostly where they belong up in trees, but a pair of them along the jeep track just above our lodge provided the best photo op.

My summer Costa Rica tour’s itinerary takes us to the Caribbean slope to four other lodges in the mid-elevation foothills of the south and north, and then to two lowland lodges on the coast and near the Nicaraguan border, all of them very exciting places to bird. But my spring tour first takes us to the Pacific Coast, which has much more pronounced dry and rainy seasons. March on the Pacific side is quite hot and dry, but bird activity is usually quite high. On the way to the southern Pacific Coast we stopped at a lodge to watch their feeders and flowers. White-tailed Emerald and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird were two really good finds here, and the fruit feeders were also a hit. This feeder has a pair of Red-headed Barbets (female back left) and three Speckled Tanagers.

One of the highlights of the spring tour is spending three days at the tiny and rustic Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. It’s not super remote, just a few hundred yards beyond the power grid, but it feels like a real jungle lodge, tucked away in the forest across a small river.

During the rainy season (mostly July-October on the Pacific side) the shallow river here can turn into a dangerous torrent, but an unprecedented late and long-lasting rain this past late November reshaped the entire floodplain like I had never seen before. The owners of the lodge and other residents on the south side of Rio Tigre were trapped there for 18 days.

This is an incredibly birdy area. One morning we walked through the village (with good habitat, including small marshes, forested hillsides, and brushy lots) for about 2 1/2 hours before breakfast and saw over 100 species. Cherrie's Tanager is one of the commoner birds here.

This Bare-throated Tiger-Heron was below the bridge at Rincón, where we also saw the exceedingly rare Yellow-billed Cotinga.

Almost as white as the cotinga was this White Hawk, a pair of which flew right over the lodge buildings and landed high overhead.

We had two American Pygmy-Kingfishers at close range, but this one was mostly hidden from my vantage point.

The female Black-throated Trogon was the first sex of this species to be described, hence the scientific name Trogon rufus. The male is green above.

Several birds com to the banana feeders at Bosque del Rio Tigre, including the endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. One of our everyday birds on the tour was the Clay-colored Thrush, the national bird of Costa Rica.

Gray-chested Dove also occasionally came for bananas.

As did Lesson's Motmot (a new name since the Blue-crowned Motmot of Mexico and Central America was split into two species; the one from northeastern Mexico is now Blue-capped Motmot).

Even Orange-billed Sparrow came to the feeders, but we saw it more often in the deep forest understory.

Slaty-tailed Trogon is audible more often than not from the trails, but they’re not too hard to see either.

We walked up the stream one afternoon, spying our only Solitary Sandpiper of the tour near some White Ibises.

This White-necked Puffbird apparently had a nest along the track above the lodge.

On our way north to the central Pacific side of Costa Rica, we stopped at a gas station and found this pair of Tropical Mockingbirds with a chick nearby. This species has only relatively recently colonized Costa Rica from the north.

We used to have a full day and a morning at Carara National Park, but now we see most of the southern Pacific coast specialties farther south, and recently the national park started enforcing strictly their 8:00 a.m. opening time, eliminating the best two and a half hours of birding of the day. Now we spend just one night here and have one early morning before we head farther north, so I’ve changed our plan to include a two-hour boat ride on the Tárcoles River.

It’s a really fun and very different birding experience from the rest of the tour, adding many water birds (including Southern Lapwings) and mangrove specialties (Scrub Greenlet, Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Yellow Warbler, among others). The best bird on this year’s boat ride was this Collared Forest-Falcon spotted by one of the participants sitting quietly in a tree on the bank. It flew just as everyone got on it, usually the end of the story, but it moved to an even more open perch, and Luke got some even more outstanding photos of it.

Before continuing to Monteverde, we had lunch at Ensenada Lodge in the dry Guanacaste lowlands of NW Costa Rica. Here we saw Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Streak-backed and Spot-breasted Orioles, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Olive Sparrow, Banded Wren, and a few other species we don’t see anywhere else on the tour.

Then we had a full day in the higher elevations of the famous Monteverde cloud forest. We see some new birds here, such as Orange-bellied Trogon but also get a refresher of some of the species we saw in the southern highlands, such as Collared Redstart.

We also got repeat views of Resplendent Quetzal, not always as easy here as in the Cerro de la Muerte area. One sat still for a long time, and I finally acquiesced even though it was too dark for a good photo. As soon as I clicked the shutter the bird flew. A record shot at least.

But then it sat even longer on another perch, giving me time to replace the spotting scope with my camera on the tripod and take a photo with slow shutter speed.

The Plain Wren was recently split into three species, all of which occur in Costa Rica (see Patterns of genetic and morphological divergence reveal a species complex in the Plain Wren [Cantorchilus modestus] by Jacob R. Saucier, César Sánchez, and Matthew D. Carling in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, Volume 132, 2015, pp. 795–807), and we saw all three very well on this tour. This one is now called Cabanis’s Wren, formerly the nominate subspecies of Plain Wren, occurring in the highlands and on the Pacific slope south to central Costa Rica. It’s the more colorful of the three and has the highest and fastest song. I did some playback experiments with all three, and unsurprisingly they respond quite aggressively to songs of all forms, even though the main song types are recognizably different in precise pattern and pitch. But most surprising was when I played a single male’s song of Canebrake Wren (the Caribbean lowland form) to a Cabanis’s Wren at our hotel in Monteverde. Rather than reacting territorially, it actually performed a highly coordinated duet (singing the female song) with the recording (from the Ross & Whitney CD). I’ve glanced at several papers dealing with wren duets, including specifically that of the Plain Wren, and it doesn’t look like anyone has documented this bizarre behavior – one species duetting with a recording of another species.

Moving along, we had an afternoon and a morning to bird in the Arenal area, but just as we got there, it began to rain. Luke spotted this roosting Great Potoo in an area where one is known to live but chooses a different roost each day. It was already rather wet by the time he found it.

Rain continued the rest of the afternoon and much of the next morning, forcing us to watch the feeders from under a roof, to no one’s disappointment. This Great Curassow was one of three who slowly clambered up into a tree then made a huge flapping effort to get to the top of this elevated feeding station otherwise occupied by Montezuma Oropendolas and several tanagers.

Later in the morning, the rain finally stopped, and we had some productive birding on the “Peninsula Road” by Lake Arenal. This is always a good area for Long-tailed Tyrant.

This Red-billed Pigeon was at our lunch stop near La Fortuna. Note that while it’s cere is reddish, the bill itself is not – and even the specific epithet (flavirostris) means yellow-billed. So how did it get that horribly inappropriate English name, now impossibly entrenched?

We arrived at our final lodge, Sueño Azul, in the late afternoon as a large roost of egrets and herons was assembling at a small reservoir just behind our rooms.

We were rather shocked to see this immature Reddish Egret perched among them; their normal habitat is shallow saltwater lagoons on either coast, and here we were 60 kilometers inland at the base of the Central Mountains.

We had a full morning at the La Selva Biological Station, where I took few photos. These female Great Curassows were wandering along the entrance road as we waited for our guide.

We had another morning at Braulio Carrillo National Park, with a short stop at a garden full of hummingbird flowers (Stachytarpheta sp., Porterweed). My favorite bird from any Costa Rica tour, if we get lucky enough to see it, is the incomparable male Snowcap.

We also had time to bird on the grounds of Sueño Azul, which was very productive. A pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds was on territory in a surprisingly open area; I’m used to seeing this species (and other relatives in the same genus) in rather dark, continuous forest understory with lots of looping woody vines. They sat long enough for me to get the camera on the tripod and take some photos stopped all the way down and at the lowest ISO setting – resulting in an exposure that took a full second. Good thing puffbirds sit so still.

I even got some video:

One of the more amazing bird sights of the tour was this migrating group of Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks (we estimated 440 of the former and 195 of the latter in this one flock). The southern half of Costa Rica had just experienced 3 days of solid rain, so this was the result of a bottling up of migrants, and after cruising north after the rain stopped, they were just starting to descend in the late afternoon to find roosts in the forests on the property. On the next morning, our last morning of birding on the lodge grounds, Swainson’s Hawks were in trees all over the area.

The video actually captures it much better:

We finished the tour with a hike through some lovely cloud forests and along the stream at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Our last new species of the tour was a pair of American Dippers of the rather distinctive Costa Rican subspecies – quite pale gray overall with contrastingly darker hood and wings.

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