By Kath Giel
In January 2023, LAS sponsored a birding trip with a focus on the diversity and endemics of birds in southern Costa Rica. Participating in the trip were 10 enthusiastic birders, from beginner to experienced, including four individuals who traveled last year on the LAS Introduction to the Birds of Costa Rica trip. There were many highlights on our trip, including a wonderful encounter with the extraordinary bird, the Resplendent Quetzal.
The trip started at the Bougainvillea Hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city in the Central Valley. In the ten acre garden at the hotel property, we all became familiar with some of the birds that would be seen regularly throughout the trip such as the Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Black Vulture, and the Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird.
Our first day was a long drive west to the Pacific Coast south of the Osa Peninsula. We did some birding along the way, but our destination was Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, a sanctuary within the largest remaining tract of lowland rainforest in Pacific Mesoamerica. A pair of Great Curassows wandered the lodge property, along with endemics such as Fiery-billed Araçari, Riverside Wren, and Golden-naped Woodpecker. All of us heard and a few of us saw the endemic endangered Black-cheeked Ant Tanager. We also spent a morning on the trails, following the calls of the endemic Baird’s Trogon, and most of us caught a furtive glimpse of the bird in the high canopy. A few hours later, at our lunch break, a pair of Baird’s Trogons made an appearance near our dining table that afforded incredible views. In the afternoon we went out to La Gamba road to see a remarkable variety of seed-eaters including Variable, Yellow-bellied, and Rusty-breasted Seedeaters, and a delightful view of a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers entering and exiting a nest and a traveling troop of White-faced Capuchin monkeys.
The next day we made an early start to look for the endangered Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas as they flew from their night-time roosting places in the forest to the mangroves. We were delighted to see both species. Later we had a visit to La Cotinga Biological Station which is restoring lowland forests in the Osa Peninsula. La Cotinga is a proponent of assisted restoration using natural processes beginning with pioneer species to provide shade, soil loosening, and soil enrichment through decaying leaves in order to reintroduce endangered forest species. Participants in the trip each contributed funds to La Cotinga for their inspiring continued work. We had a most informative tour, accompanied in part by a large family of Central American Squirrel Monkeys, and we were thrilled to see a King Vulture soaring above. We were also rewarded with several pairs of the brilliant Scarlet Macaws flying overhead.
Our journey then took us east to the rice fields south of hospital Ciudad Neily to see the first Dark-billed Cuckoo ever seen in Costa Rica! The cuckoo showed up several weeks before our trip, and has been inhabiting some brush next to the rice fields. We all got very good looks at the cuckoo, and our guide Mario was pleased to add a new bird to his Costa Rica life list. In the rice fields we also saw the endemic Savannah Hawk as well as a nesting Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and the brilliant Red-breasted Meadowlark. We continued to Wilson Botanical Gardens, a research center for scientists and public education on tropical botany, including conservation, horticulture, sustainable development, agroecology, and reforestation studies particularly for endangered species. The Gardens are run by the Organization for Tropical Studies and the ambiance was one of delightful scientific study. We made a trip to a small hill above the Gardens and were rewarded with lovely views of the Black-chested Jay. This Black-chested Jay seemed to enjoy looking at his reflection in our bus’s side mirror! The next day we walked the Garden trails, seeing a number of endemics — Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, White-tailed Emerald, White-crested Coquette and the Spot-Crowned Euphonia. We also regularly saw the Common Tody-flycatcher. In the afternoon we went to Bosque Rio Negro to look for the endemic Orange-collared Manakin, but strong winds most likely kept the Manakins hunkered down. We enjoyed the sunset and then the waxing moon from the dining room deck.
Our final destination was to travel along the Pan American Highway through the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death) and on to the cloud forest of the Savegre Valley. We stopped to hike and bird at the home and grounds of Alexander Skutch, the father of Costa Rican birding. It was a unique property and we were rewarded with sightings of the tiny Velvety Manakin, an aptly-named Cocoa Woodcreeper, and endemics Swallow-tailed Kite and Volcano Hummingbird. We then continued to the paramo, which is the land above the tree line, and were welcomed by the large and endemic Volcano Junco that eBird describes as “Demonic-looking bird with staring yellow eye set against black face.” We thought it was adorable. Later, we stopped at a roadside cafe that had some hummingbird feeders and saw 7 different species of hummingbirds. Finally, our bus turned onto the serpentine descending gravel road into the Savegre Valley in order to position ourselves for sighting the star of the area, the Resplendent Quetzal. We had some time to wander the beautiful hotel grounds before meeting for our daily 6:30pm bird checklist review, enjoying cheeky Acorn Woodpeckers and Flame-colored Tanagers.
The next morning we left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to get in prime position at a local farm with wild avocado trees to see the Resplendent Quetzal. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit so we were bundled up waiting for the moment of arrival. After about 15 minutes of shivering, Mario heard the male Quetzal calling and several minutes later the Quetzal made his spectacular appearance. He posed for a minute or two then went to fetch an avocado to eat. It was so thrilling to see this magnificent bird with its tail coverts flying in the air. The Quetzal appeared out of and disappeared into the forest and after an hour of viewing, we decided to continue to breakfast. We spent the rest of the day exploring nearby forests and the hotel grounds. Among the birds sighted were the endemics Long-tailed SilkyFlycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Large-footed Finch, Flame-throated Warbler, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.
The next day was San Jose bound, but not without a stop at Finca Christina, an organic shade grown coffee farm, dedicated to producing delicious coffee while protecting and preserving native flora and fauna. Here we saw the raucous Brown Jay. Fully caffeinated, we headed to another coffee farm to look for the endangered Cabanisi Ground-Sparrow. We were met there by Paz, one of the founders of the Cabanisi Project. This project is working to understand the bird’s range, annually survey the population, educate people about the bird, and work directly with farmers to put in practice agricultural methods that will benefit their crops as well as providing habitat for the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. This species is restricted to a small range, primarily in the Central Valley of Costa Rica and is increasingly threatened by land-use change for urban developments. We spent about an hour searching for the bird, catching quick glimpses due to its furtive nature, and then attended a presentation by Paz about the unique story of the Cabanisi Ground-Sparrow. As part of the trip cost, each participant on the trip had contributed funds to continue the study of these enigmatic birds. Continuing on we stopped at the studio of Tamara Rojas Sibaja, a talented artist who creates beautiful items from her original art of Costa Rica birds. Our wallets empty after the visit, we were bused to our final hotel, where we saw the resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
In the end, the trip was deemed a huge success. The cooperation amongst the group and guides to help each other find birds, learn more about the environment of Costa Rica, and enjoy our time was wonderful. We ended up seeing just over 250 species of birds and over a third of all the endemics in Costa Rica. Since our focus was on the endemics rather than seeing as many different species as possible, we all agreed that the trip met its goals. To use the Costa Rican term for this trip, I would have to say the trip was “Pura Vida!”