We wanted to go away for a decent holiday in 2018, pre-requisites being that it is somewhere hot, some beaches to enjoy and plenty of birds, and for quite some time we had Sri Lanka down as where we would go. Then suddenly Costa Rica became a contender, and I'm not sure why we specifically decided upon that particular country, but it became set in stone and we booked it and I was soon delving into lonely planet books and bird guides.
In short, it is an incredibly beautiful country, with seemingly endless tracts of rainforest, amazing beaches and wildlife literally everywhere. Quite a change from Vietnam, which whilst i'm sure is still brimming with goodies, was somewhere where you had to really work for your birds. In Costa Rica it wasn't exactly easy, but there was always something exciting round the next corner.
Travel-wise it differed from other places we had been in that it was more expensive than we had imagined, which on our usual travellers budget, forced us to live a lot more frugally than we usually would - often subsisting on a diet of rice and vegetables, cooked up in various hostel kitchens. Otherwise however, we found it to be a wonderful place to travel with the vast majority of people being exceptionally welcoming and friendly, going out of their way to help, even strangers on public transport! We found it relatively easy to travel the country by bus, which although it involved long journeys, was always reasonably comfortable and reliable. I should also note that we went during the 'rainy season' which I think just lasts most of the year. Rain it did - we were treated to frequent extreme downpours every single day - some days it just rained and rained, especially up in the higher elevations. Still, I guess there wouldn't be all the rainforests without all the rain!
And onto the birding. Having read reports prior to going where people were seeing 250-300 species in a single trip, I was looking forward to getting to grips with some Neotropical species. Obviously, without a guide and by relying on public transport, it always restrictive as to what you are able to see (lacking access to certain areas, or lacking identification know-how), but I do find it much more rewarding going out and working stuff out for myself. In the end I identified 114 species, which was less than I'd hoped for, but with 14 endemics and some 109 of them being completely new to me, it wasn't too bad really...
We flew into San Jose and as we tend to do booked our first couple of nights at our destination to find our feet and acclimatise to the country. It also provides an opportunity to do a bit of light local birding as in introduction to a whole new suite of species. On this occasion, we wished we hadn't bothered, as it wasn't a particularly nice place to be, certainly lacking much to entertain your typical traveller. It was bustling, a bit run down and there didn't seem to be many places even to sit down and have a drink or something to eat. A walk to a park on the outskirts of the city centre produced Green Heron and some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on a lake, as well as a couple of guys getting busted by the local cops (nice!). We also got to grips with species that would soon become familiar during the whole trip such as Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird and Great-tailed Grackle.
A Costa Rican Uber whisked us to the local bus station at dawn, to take a bus up the mountains to Monterverde, to experience some of the jungle and cloudforest that the country is so famed for. We stayed at some brilliant self-catering accommodation on hills to the north of the town (a fairly long trek up and down each time we wanted to go anywhere!). This would be home for the next few days and a little wander round the local area produced a few Blue-crowned Motmot, Boat-billed Flycatchers (seemingly replacing Kiskadees at this elevation) and plenty of Black Vultures overhead. Around our grounds were lots of noisy Brown Jay, and in the garden were House wrens, Rufous-collared Sparrows and White-eared ground sparrows.
Waking up to better weather the next morning, we made our way to town to hop on a bus up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This was the main reason we had come up here and we were not disappointed, we ended up taking on most of the tourist trails, which resulted in a good few hours of walking and birding. The atmosphere in the forest is hard to describe, but it had an eerie silence, enhanced by the high humidity and unending gloom that came from an extremely thick and lush understory. Lonely bird-calls echoed from tree to tree and an occasional glimpse of something in the vegetation was almost all you could see of any birdlife. Luckily we occasionally chanced upon little flocks of feeding birds, commonly made up of Three-striped Warblers, Common Chlorospingus, Sooty-faced finch, Banaquit and Grey-breasted Woodwren. The haunting calls of Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush will stay with me forever, not dissimilar to those of the Black-faced Solitaire, both of which were seen a few times. A number of very cute Collared Redstart were seen in a clearing, a local endemic, and at the highest point of the park we noted a Black-thighed Grosbeak flitting from the treetops. We encountered our first Coatis of the trip too, we felt incredibly priveliged to see a family party wandering across the path (it was pretty awesome!), however the magic was later shattered when we realised they were everywhere, especially at the café where they were trying to steal peoples coffee and cakes! Other mammals included or first Monkeys (White-faced Capuchins), and more Agoutis.
The café at the entrance to the Cloudforest was a particular highlight, not just for the excellent fare, but also because of the busy Hummingird feeders, which were attracting dozens of hummers. I, amongst many other tourists, was rattling off hundreds of photos, and I managed to get a couple of decent ones, but it was mostly useful so that I could later pore over them to identify the species. Most common were Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violetear, Violet Sabrewing, as well as smaller numbers of Purple-throated Mountian-gem, Talamanca (Magnificent), Stripe-tailed and Coppery-headed Hummingbird, along with plenty of Bananaquits.
|Green-crowned Brilliant (Female)|
Green-crowned Brilliant Juv
|Purple-throated Mountain-gem Juv|
|Coati - Just before trying to nick our coffee and cake|
After the temperate climate of the uplands, it was quite a pleasant change to a hot and humid climate when we reached the pacific lowlands, which was to be our main focus for the rest of the trip. We were on our way to Jaco which would serve as our base for the next few days before we made a decision on which way to go next. A lengthy stopover at Puntarenas meant a bit of beach time with all our luggage, but allowed for our first views of the Pacific, complete with passing flocks of Brown Pelican, White Ibis, and overhead a large gathering of Turkey Vulture and Magnificent Frigatebird. The occasional Royal Tern also flew by and I managed some photographs of a lone Willet that was working up and down the shoreline.
When we eventually reached our accommodation in Jaco (complete with a nice garden to chill out in), we just got a feel of the local area. Great Kiskadee and Tropical Kingbird were seemingly the most common species here (and the rest of the lowlands it emerged), along with a number of Clay-coloured Thrush in the garden, and Ruddy-ground Doves, a Streak-headed Woodcreeper and a Rufous-naped Wren (a massive wren!) also putting in appearances. A morning walk along the beachfront and surrounding area also added the first of many Spotted Sandpipers and some Inca Dove.
We later got a bus to Carara National Park, where we'd hoped to get dropped off at the main entrance. Our limited Spanish however got us dropped of a mile or two up the road, at the famous Cocodrilo Bridge over the Rio Tarcoles, which was actually pretty cool (lots of crocs!), if a little hair-raising (Lorries passing by at high speed at close quarters!). Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron and Ringed Kingfisher were also noted from here, before we backtracked along the roadside to the main park entrance. Our aim here was Scarlet Macaw, but unfortunately we only heard them here (but ended up seeing them regularly in the following week), but there was plenty of stuff to keep us interested in this pleasant reserve. We followed the trails through the jungle, picking off various small species feeding in the understorey, including Orange-billed Sparrow, Red-capped Manakin, Black-hooded Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird and Buff-rumped Warbler. Higher up in the canopy, new birds include Gray-headed Tanager, Streaked Flycatcher, and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. We saw our second Monkey species of the trip too, with several distant parties of Spider Monkeys crashing through the canopy.
Back in Jaco, we finally saw Scarlet Macaws, with birds seemingly travelling in and out to roost in the evening and again in the morning. A Yellow-headed Caracara was rifling through some bins in town in the evening and I also added Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Red-crowned Woodpecker to the list before we departed for our next stop-off.
We were unsure where to go next, and ended up in Uvita as it was famed for an excellent beach and potential whale sightings too (we were a bit too early). However a mix of poor accommodation and not much to do, meant we didn't stay here very long. The beach was indeed very beautiful and of course there were birds to see too, though it felt like opportunities for exploring were a bit limited, so I only managed whatever was in the surrounding land around the town. That said, some new species were seen, such as Gray-necked Woodrail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Variable seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit, Bronzed Cowbird and Plumbeous Kite. Palm and Cherrie's Tanagers were very common, along with the usual Kiskadees and Kingbirds, whilst it was quite entertaining having Black Vultures picking through the rubbish out the back of the accommodation. Overhead were Scarlet Macaws and Caracaras, and at night hundreds of Parrots (that sounded much like Pink-footed geese!) flew over to roost, but I never knew what species they were.
|Tropical Kingbird, with lunch|
|Black Vulture with fruit salad|
The Osa peninsular was to be our home for the next 5 days, we wanted to just stay put for a while instead of travelling around too much so chose Drake Bay as our base as it felt quite remote and had plenty of scope for wildlife. The only way here in the wet season is a boat from Sierpe, and I've never felt quite so unsettled as I did as we were bobbing about on that little boat at the mouth of the river, entering the sea with massive waves coming from several directions, but luckily the crew of the boat traversed these dangerous waters several times a day and skilfully picked their way out of the estuary and onto the open water. Before boarding, we had more great views of Scarlet Macaws, and added Mangrove Swallow and Grey-breasted Martin to the list.
Over the next couple of days we just relaxed and took in the local area, with several walks up and down the coastal path, between rain showers. Cherrie's Tanagers and Bananaquits were ever present in the garden of the hostel and one afternoon a Black-mandibled Toucan visited the garden, attempting to rob a tanager nest. Around town, I noted Green kingfisher, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Panama Flycatcher and White-tipped doves, and at night hundreds of Red-lored Parrots flew overhead to roost, and amazing experience. Over the next few days, the walk south from the town along a forested path, dotted with little beaches produced plenty, including Mangrove Hummingbird (another endemic), Golden-naped Woodpecker, Great Black Hawk, Golden-hooded Tanager, Thick-billed seedfinch and Riverside Wren. A family of Capuchins also provided some entertainment.
|Little Blue Heron|
We had a couple of guided trips, one to Cano Island to do some snorkelling, which was brilliant, with several turtles coming to see what we were up to, Reef Sharks swimming below and numerous brightly coloured fish. Also a brief sighting of a Humpback whale on the way out was quite a sight. The other was a guided trip to Corcovado National Park, one of the most Biodiverse parks in the world, which can now only be visited with a guide, and only a tiny fraction of which is open for tourism to protect the ecosystem and the rare animals that reside there. The tour was quite generalist, so opportunities for birding were limited, but we got some nice scope views of Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogon, and other new species were Great Currasow, Pale-vented Pigeon, Agami heron, Snowy egret, Stripe-throated Hermit and Double-toothed kite. We also passed a colony of Brown Booby from the boat on the way back. The stars of the show were the mammals however, and we got point-blank views of a resting Baird's Tapir, a huge family party of Coati, and all four species of Monkey to be found in Costa Rica, including excellent views of Squirrel Monkeys - very cute.
For our last couple of days we were unsure where to go, and although we'd heard it was a bit touristy, we settled on Manuel Antonio to see out the trip. Our accommodation was at the top end of town, a ten minute bus journey to the National Park, and in the grounds we had the company of some noisy Howler Monkeys, as well as Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, more Black-mandibled Toucans, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Groove-billed Ani and White-crowned Parrot.
We started the journey back to the airport the next day, but before leaving I had a wander down to town through a forest-lined neighbourhood, hoping for some last-minute additions, and managed 2 new species, Masked Tityra and White-collared Swift, along with some more Golden-naped Woodpeckers and Groove-billed Anis, and I also had excellent views of a Howler Monkey and another Sloth, before walking back up the beach to get the bus back up to the apartment.
And that was it - the journey back was uneventful and we stayed in a windowless room in Alajuela (much nicer than San Jose!) before flying back the next day. As previously stated, a list of 114 was good, though I would have liked more (who wouldn't?), with 14 endemics (or near-endemics), and 14 species of mammal. It was a great taste of birding the Americas, and only left me wanting to come to this continent again to experience more of what's on offer.