North-west Costa Rica Birding

Day by Day - October 2007

8 October 2007

We eventually arrived at the head of the check-in queue at Gatwick to be told that our plane was delayed by 24 hours due to ‘technical difficulties’. Meanwhile here is a £5 food voucher and you are staying overnight at the Hilton. This was not a good start to a seven-day holiday.

We checked in to the Hilton, which was only a ten-minute walk and train ride away, and decided to make the most of the day by hiring a car and twitching a Pectoral Sandpiper at Pagham. We had a pleasant day’s birding but we would rather have been on our way to Costa Rica.

9 October 2007

The plane left on time and arrived at Liberia on time, the sun was shining (which was to prove to be deceptive) and a vehicle was waiting for us to take us to the car hire office. On the way we saw three interesting birds sitting on the airport perimeter fence and a Double-striped Thick-knee. While we were waiting at the Avis office Barn Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were flying low around the building while a couple of Turkey Vultures flew high. We collected the car and drove back to the airport and discovered that the fence-sitting birds were Lesser Nighthawks. Three close-range Crested Bobwhites inside the fence were a good find. We also saw Streak-backed Orioles, Baltimore Orioles, Tropical Kingbirds, Mourning Doves, Groove-billed Anis and Great-tailed Grackles, all of which proved to be common. A Wilson’s Warbler was the only one we saw.

On the way to our hotel we added Crested Caracara and Great Egret. We stopped at Panama Beach and did a quick survey. A Lesser Yellowlegs, a Whimbrel, and a Sanderling were feeding by a small stream.

By now it was dark which made finding the hotel slightly difficult, but after a few wrong turns and conversations with passing locals, we arrived at our hotel. We had made it, but tomorrow we had to be up really early.


10 October 2007

We had planned our first full day to be spent locally, familiarising ourselves with the commoner birds, but the day’s delay did for that idea. We were to plunge straight into the deep end. We had arranged, via the internet, for a day’s birding with a local guide, Carlos Jimenez, who was to take us to Heliconias, which is in the Guanacaste Cordillera and where we might meet some of the Caribbean species. He would meet us at 04.00 at the gate to our hotel. He arrived on time in his vehicle, we drove to his home in Coco Beach, where he left his vehicle, and set off for our destination.

Heliconias Lodge is off the road that goes to Bijagua from the Pan-American Highway. We were on this road when dawn broke and we saw our first birds of the day, a small group of White-faced Magpie-Jays. We turned off the tarmac road, stopped for a Western Wood-pewee, then arrived at the lodge just as it started drizzling.

We walked along a track upwards into the rainforest and almost immediately encountered a pair of Blue-black Grosbeaks. This was followed by the near-endemic Rufus-winged Woodpecker, a Caribbean rainforest speciality, and later by a Black-cheeked Woodpecker, another Caribbean species. A Broad-billed Motmot gave good views in the gloom while a Double-toothed Kite perched at the top of a tree as we stood on one of the narrow suspension bridges that became such a feature of the walk. Other birds seen were Masked Tityra, Olive-backed Euphonia, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, White-throated Thrush and Stripe-breasted Wren.

Torrential rain was now falling as we returned to the lodge. The trees we could see through the rain-washed windows of the restaurant were alive with small birds, although most were the ubiquitous Red-eyed Vireo. But there were Yellow-green Vireos, Passerini’s Tanagers, female Scarlet Tanagers, Blue-gray Tanagers and two superb Green Honeycreepers. A Rufus-tailed Hummingbird occasionally fed from the flowers close by the window.

After a very good lunch the sun appeared and we set off down the track below the lodge. It passed through fields and here we saw Variable Seedeaters, Yellow-faced Grassquits, a Short-billed Pigeon with Red-billed Pigeons. Flocks of Crimson-fronted and Orange-fronted Parakeets flew overhead. Then the rain returned in force and we decided to move to lower elevations.

On the way down we saw our only toucan - a Keel-billed. Just before we reached the Pan-American Highway we stopped at some roadside ponds. The first birds we saw were a Limpkin and a Bare-throated Tiger Heron. There followed more herons: Black-crowned Night-herons, Little Blue Herons and a Snowy Egret. Ducks were represented by Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Muscovy Ducks and a Blue-winged Teal, wading birds by Northern Jacanas, Black-necked Stilts and Solitary Sandpipers, and passerines by Stripe-headed Sparrows, a Tennessee Warbler and Stripe-breasted Wrens.

We next stopped by some very large wet fields near Playa Panama. We very quickly found White-collared Seedeaters, Yellow-faced Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquits. These were followed by a spectacular male Tricolored Munia which, according to the book, wasn’t supposed to be there. Two more out-of-range birds came next, a distant Snail Kite and - most astonishing of all - two Jabirus. These birds were known to Carlos, who was one of their wardens, but he had decided to keep this one up his sleeve. There are only 41 in the whole of Costa Rica. A roadside Canivet’s Hummingbird was the one hummer we saw there.

It was pitch-black by the time we arrived back at the hotel but we did see a Barn Owl on the way.


11 October 2007

We at last saw the hotel in daylight as we did a pre-breakfast stroll through the grounds to the beach. Here we found Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Little Blue Herons, White Ibises, Green Herons, Wilson’s Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, a Sanderling, a Whimbrel and Spotted Sandpipers while at sea we saw Brown Noddies, Bridled Terns, Black Terns and Magnificent Frigatebirds. On the far side of the bay was a huge flock of hundreds of terns in a feeding frenzy which we couldn’t identify. Land-based birds included Boat-billed Flycatcher, Osprey, Ringed Kingfisher and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Meanwhile Mike had wandered back to the hotel where he found Hoffmann’s Woodpecker and Black-headed Trogon in the grounds and a Greater Yellowlegs at the opposite end of the beach.

We then set off for Santa Rosa National Park, finding the Pan-American Highway practically empty. After paying the entrance fee we stopped at the first signed track on the right, noticed how muddy it was and decided to walk rather than drive. Fairly quickly we encountered birds - the first of many Rufous-naped Wrens, Banded Wren, Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, Ovenbird and Squirrel Cuckoo. We walked as far as a small clearing which appeared to be a military monument with a couple of rusting vehicles. Overhead, among the ubiquitous Black Vultures, we saw a King Vulture.  From this point the track became a river so we turned back. On the road we found a newly-dead male Long-tailed Manakin. In the distance we heard a Thicket Tinamou.

Santa Rosa Mirador
The only place where we were able to see across the treetops.

We stopped several times before reaching the visitor centre turning up Black-and-white Warbler and a Pale-billed Woodpecker. The trail by the visitor centre was so wet that a Northern Waterthrush was feeding along it while nearby was a Swainson’s Thrush and White-tipped Doves. A small herd of White-tailed Deer tip-toed through the undergrowth and two very beautiful grey and white Variegated Squirrels dodged about in the trees. We had an acceptable lunch in the café.

The calls of Mantled Howler Monkeys were a feature and we had an eye-watering view of a male (see the image!). On the way back we stopped by one of the cleared areas, which was remarkably unproductive but we did have good views of a Barred Hawk soaring overhead. A couple of us also had a brief sighting of an Opossum, which was probably Common.

Dusk was closing in as we drove back along the Pan-American Highway and birds were going to roost. On the left of the road was a pond with an island and on the island were 200 Cattle Egrets, 15 Great Egrets, 6 Snowy Egrets, 3 Little Blue Herons, 1 Tricolored Heron and 2 Neotropic Cormorants, plus a huge Green Iguana. Across the road Yellow-naped Parrots were coming in from all directions to roost in a group of large trees while nearby four Orange-chinned Parakeets had arrived. Driving along the Pan-American highway in torrential rain with, as we neared Liberia, increasing numbers of cyclists without lights and wearing dark clothes was not an experience to be repeated.


12 October 2007

Today we were on our way to the Rincon de la Vieja Mountain Lodge where we had booked in, via the internet, for one night. Our first stop was at the fields where we had seen the Jabirus. This time the two birds were very close to the road which allowed, after we had managed to remove the condensation from the lenses, some reasonable photos. We also saw some out of range Red-winged Blackbirds and a Mangrove Swallow among the many Barn Swallows. Jim, who had missed the Tricoloured Munia of two days ago, managed to find a pair.

We pressed on along the Pan-American Highway and managed to miss the turning to Rincon de la Vieja because Dave F, who was navigating, wasn’t expecting it to come so soon. Instead we turned up the road to the village of Canas Dulces, which was tarmac as far as the village and then rather rough. It passed through farmland but there was some forest by a river. We stopped here and found Black Phoebe, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Banded Wren and our first living Long-tailed Manakin. Later on we saw Yellow-throated and Scrub Euphonias, Brown Jay, Blue Grosbeak, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and a displaying male Blue-black Grassquit which jumped up and down on a fence-post. Overhead were half a dozen Vaux’s Swifts.

We finally arrived at the end of the road - the Buena Vista Lodge - not having seen any signs to our destination. The staff in the lodge gave us the good news - we were on the wrong road and had to return to the Pan-American Highway. Meanwhile, in the car park, a grey raptor was sitting on a bush right next to the car. It was a Roadside Hawk. And on the fence was a hummingbird which we identified with much difficulty as a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

A puncture on the way back down the mountain caused a short delay in the birding.

We returned to the highway, turned towards Liberia and drove up the correct road. It wasn’t as productive as the Canas Dulces road but we did see Olive Tanager, Orange-chinned Parakeets, White-collared Swift and Squirrel Cuckoo.

The Rincon de la Vieja Mountain Lodge was well signposted from the road and we drove confidently towards our destination. On rounding a corner we were greeted with a heart-stopping sight - a raging torrent crossing the road, and on a rock, silhouetted against the white water, a Sunbittern. Jim’s shout had us all grabbing cameras and exiting the car within seconds. The Sunbittern stayed on its rock for quite a time then moved upstream, jumping from rock to rock occasionally opening its amazing wings. This was, for all of us, the bird of the trip.

Next, of course, we had to cross the river. It was about 40 m wide and of unknown depth. In the end we just went for it and just about made it. We were soon at the lodge and checked in just as the rain came down yet again.

The grounds held a couple of ponds and on them were a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and a Spotted Sandpiper. The trees yielded a Cinnamon Becard, Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, Olive Tanager and a Melodious Blackbird. The flowering bushes by the entrance gate were alive with warring hummingbirds - Steely-vented and Stripe-tailed. Beyond the gate, in the scrub, Dave P found a female Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

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The road to Rincon de la Vieja Mountain Lodge
After raining overnight the road was fairly tricky to negotiate!

On arrival the Sunbittern was perched on the rocks to the right of the vehicle.


13 October 2007

The bushes by the gate yielded a third hummingbird, Purple-throated Goldentail, but we added nothing else to our list. We then drove to the national park and walked along the circular trail near the entrance. This proved to be difficult walking what with the mud, slippery rocks and many streams. The birding wasn’t much easier either but we did manage to see Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Stub-tailed Spadebill, a very tame Gray-necked Wood-rail, Red-throated Ant-tanagers and more Long-tailed Manakins. We also saw two very rufous Central American Agoutis feeding together.  

Away from the rainforest, the open scrubby areas near the hot mud pools were incredibly lifeless. Back at the entrance things were slightly more lively with dozens of Red-eyed Vireos, various common flycatchers, and we all saw a Purple-throated Mountain-gem.  A very tame White-nosed Coati was being fed - against the rules - at the entrance.

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Rincon de la Vieja - One of the hot sulphurous pools.  The smell was not pleasant!

14 October 2007

Today we were off early for a return trip to Santa Rosa, but we didn’t get far. A nightjar on the road just outside the hotel brought us to a sudden halt. In fact there were three of them, and while we were sorting them out a large owl, which may have been a Spectacled Owl, flew over the road. The nightjars were Pauraques.

We stopped along the Pan-American highway for some White-fronted Parrots, White-collared Swifts and a Mangrove Swallow, but we arrived at Santa Rosa remarkably early and soon we were among birds. Walking along the road we saw Lesser Greenlet and Olive Sparrow while we heard a Plain Wren (they sound like Cetti’s Warblers) and a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. On the trail near the visitor centre we reacquainted ourselves with the Northern Waterthrush and the Swainson’s Thrush, but we also saw a dark phase Collared Forest-falcon first flying and then perched low, a Crested Guan jumping through the canopy, a Yellow-olive Flycatcher, a Laughing Falcon, and - luckiest sighting of all - a Thicket Tinamou that walked across the road a few metres in front of our car. The doves that wandered along the forest floor were White-tipped and Gray-headed Doves.

We left in mid-afternoon with enough time to get to Communidad fishponds which we had been told about by Carlos. They are south of the town by the road to Belen and consist of a series of large rectangular ponds in fields.

Almost the first bird we saw was a Laughing Falcon on a telegraph pole while on the ponds were Least Grebes, a Pied-billed Grebe and Northern Jacanas. There were many hirundines including Southern Rough-winged Swallows, Gray-breasted Martins and a Cliff Swallow. Herons and egrets was abundant but only a Great Blue Heron was new.

Meanwhile Mike had stayed at the hotel to try some wader photography; it rained for much of the day but some close encounters with all of the waders made it worthwhile. A Willet spent all day on the beach as did a very confiding Tri-coloured Heron and the Greater Yellowlegs.  Two Western Sandpipers were the only ones seen during the trip.

15 October 2007

This was (we thought) our last day and as we had to check-in at 12.30 we decided to stay within a short distance of the hotel. We started with an early morning look at the sea which produced 250 Black Terns, 3 Forster’s Terns - which are not supposed to occur in the area - 1 Royal Tern, 3 Brown Noddies, 22 Magnificent Frigatebirds and 20 Brown Pelicans. After this we decided to explore a track near the hotel but the onset of heavy rain limited our time and the number of birds. We went on to one of our favourite sites, the Jabiru fields where we duly saw two Jabirus, albeit distantly. It was now time to return to the hotel, pack our bags and go to the airport.

It was hammering it down with rain when we stopped near our rooms. Our representative came running to meet us. “They’re closing the bridge to the airport in half an hour, the river is so high it’s about to flood.” We looked at him in amazement. The last time we had seen that river it was at the bottom of quite a deep ravine. “I’m trying to gather everybody up so we can get them on the coaches,” he continued.

The bridge was a twenty minute drive away so we didn’t have much time. We ran to our rooms threw everything into our bags and left. There was a queue when we got to the bridge. When we got near enough to see, the sight was quite frightening. A raging torrent was rushing only a metre below the bridge. We drove across through a world of water, rain pouring down, windscreen wipers going, great waves crashing below us. Shortly after, they closed the bridge leaving our fellow holiday-makers stranded.


Raging Torrent

This was the bridge crossing to the airport.  The water level should have been 10 metres lower!!


At the airport we found others who had made it, a couple who had come by taxi and three individual backpackers who had stayed in Liberia. And the First Choice Area Manager.

She had not only the problem of most of her customers being unable to get to the airport but also the problem of a plane-load of people arriving from Gatwick with nowhere for them to stay as there were only 40 available rooms in Liberia. The solution was to divert the plane to Cancun in Mexico, where there were plenty of hotels, and put us up for the night in a hotel in Liberia. But would the bridge be open tomorrow?

It transpired that our hotel was just south of the town, on the Pan-American Highway. Las Espuelas was a Best Western and was a pleasant motel-style hotel with plenty of mature trees in the grounds. Naturally, we had to explore it. First we saw a Northern Beardless-tyrannulet and one of the surprisingly uncommon Clay-colored Robins, then in one of the large trees near the road, an adult Gray Hawk and, later, a juvenile. After a decent meal and a few beers we went to bed, hoping for the best.


16 October 2007

After breakfast, the Area Manager gave us the remarkable news that, because the river was tidal, the bridge would be open at low tide. Thus the plane would be scheduled to arrive at low tide! This, we found out much later, was after dark. We spent most of the morning at the hotel and the rest of the day mooching around the airport.

It was actually sunny for once and there were birds in the sky. Nine Broad-winged Hawks drifted over, obviously on migration, and 15 White-collared Swifts put in a brief appearance. In the grounds were a couple of Turquoise-browed Motmots, Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, a Squirrel Cuckoo and Melodious Blackbirds. A walk along the track behind the hotel and then along the road on the other side of the highway gave us a Scrub Euphonia, a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and a couple of White-fronted Parrots. And then we were off in the coach to the airport.

Because we had checked-in the previous day, we were fast-tracked so we had plenty of time. The other passengers had finally made it and we heard their story. Having failed to cross the bridge the coaches turned back only to discover that a landslide now blocked the road. They went down an alternative road to find a tree had fallen over the road. They then had to resort to dirt back roads. It took five hours to get back to the hotels instead of the normal twenty minutes. We had done well to get over the bridge.

Meanwhile, Liberia Airport was turning up a few birds. One of our fellow-passengers pointed out that there was an owl sitting on a beam just below the roof. It was a Pacific Screech Owl! Having duly photographed it we walked along to the boundary fence where we had seen Lesser Nighthawks on our first day. They had gone but we counted nine Double-striped Thick-knees. On a flowering bush at the corner of the departure area a Cinnamon Hummingbird intermittently fed. When darkness came and  we were in the departure lounge, we were treated to the remarkable sight of Double-striped Thick-knees running around the floodlit tarmac. They were the last birds we saw before we finally took off for Gatwick.

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