Rancho Naturalista, Costa Rica

Published by Richard Sutton (benazsutton AT hotmail.com)

Participants: Richard Sutton (with images supplied by Dawn Pando, Robert Rock and Stephen Tsuyuki)


Snowcap, copyright Robert Rock


This report stems from a visit my wife and I made to Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica from 14th-18th April 2007. I am an independent and lifelong birder. Over the years I have stayed at many eco and birding lodges round the world. Rancho Naturalista is a lodge that is dedicated to birders. It has for long held an enviable reputation as one of the best birding destinations in Costa Rica. I am happy to report that it continues to merit its excellent reputation.

Snowcap, copyright Robert Rock

Nice News

RN was created 20 years ago by Kathy and John Erb, and soon gained renown. Now it is managed by Kathy alone wih her team of well-trained and cheerful staff. Apart from our good experience there, it was clear that the other guests were also enjoying themselves. Kathy has set in train a series of improvements over the last 2 years. When Kevin Easely, one of Costa Rica's most experienced and knowledgeable bird tour leaders, took a group of 14 people there in February, he wrote that RN "was looking better than ever" and that the feedback from his group was "overwhelmingly positive". In fact more improvements have taken place since his visit.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia, copyright Stephen Tsuyuki

Those who know:

I guess the people who know RN best are the leaders and managers of professional bird tour companies. RN’s client list includes the most eminent in the world: Wings, Birdquest, Field Guides, Sunbird, Eagle Eye, Limosa, Worldbirder, and from Costa Rica, leading operators such as Costa Rica Gateway , Costa Rica Expeditions and Tico Expeditions. They use RN regularly because they like it and because it is good. They vote with their feet – by going there.

Why Costa Rica?

Every country in the world has problems, and Costa Rica is no exception. It is a close ally of the United States and there are no armed forces to pay for. So in economic terms it has prospered. However this prosperity inevitably comes at a price. Migrants from its poorer neighbours have arrived. There are social problems. Environmentally, comparing things now with the way they were 20 years ago when I last visited CR, urbanised sprawl around San Jose and the Valle Central has increased. The removal of forest to make way for farms remains widespread. A look at The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch will yield repeated references to the decline of bird numbers because of habitat loss.

This of course has happened all over the world: in terms of tropical countries, it is perhaps better documented in CR than elsewhere.

Keel-billed Toucan
Keel-billed Toucan, copyright Stephen Tsuyuki

But CR remains an essential birding destination. In part this is because it is fairly close to USA and easy to get to. More important, however, is the extraordinary range of different habitats in one small tropical country. There is consequently an extraordinary array of birds, many of them breathtakingly beautiful. Many of these species are range - restricted: you won’t find them in Mexico or South America. A further factor helping CR is the birding infrastructure: CR can rightly boast of its many bird-rich national parks. Many places have reserves, lodges and guides, and there are highly efficient local operators and handling agents such as the ones I have mentioned that can send you anywhere in the country.

What did I find?

Rancho Naturalista is a 125 acre (it seems larger) forest reserve hanging atop a steep hill, or mini-mountain, near Turrialba, maybe 80 miles east of San Jose. It lies on the Caribbean slope, which means it gets lots of Caribbean specialities, at elevations of 2528 – 3851 feet. At these heights the climate is balmy, warm by day, cool at night. RN overlooks a mosaic of small farms and trees in the distant valley below. Not far away is the massif of Cerro Silencio, a pristine forested wilderness that holds some mega rarities including a few Lovely Cotingas. Out of sight are two other nearby valleys that are excellent for birds, notably Sunbitterns.

The lodge:

We liked what we saw on arrival: a neat, small-scale lodge building with a lovely view and with balconies right along the front. Even though we arrived in the early afternoon, a row of hummingbird feeders was attracting clouds of hummers: indeed activity proved to be incessant from dawn till after dusk. Within minutes we had seen 8 species. In the mornings the staff put fruit out to the front of the balcony to attract tanagers and others: photographers are in their element. Meals are eaten at tables on the balcony. There are reference books and bird and other checklists, recently updated in October 2006. The Lodge sits in a small clearing: some species are drawn to the sunlit edges of this clearing.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmot, copyright Dawn Pando

Green Honeycreeper, copyright Dawn Pando

A few minutes walk away, up a forested gully, there is another set of hummingbird feeders, known as the forest feeders. There is a shelter where you can sit and watch. This, for us, was THE place to see Snowcaps, even in mid-afternoon. We saw them here on each visit. There were other hummers here that were not at the balcony feeders, such as Red-footed Plumeleteer.

Another quickly-reached site is a ravine holding some pools of water, known as the hummingbird pools. We again saw Snowcap here and Purple-crowned Fairy diving in for a wash.

The room:

Ours was actually on the balcony: ask for such a room if you can. It was large, airy, well-furnished, very comfortable and spotlessly clean. The staff were capable, well-trained and very friendly. They are all locally born and have been trained up by Kathy Erb, the joint owner (with her husband) and sole manager.

The guides:

We met two, named Leo and Herman. Both were amazing. They had remarkable skills at finding, identifying and, most importantly, showing you the birds. Having bionic eyes and ears no doubt helped. They also used rapid tape playback equipment, and had direction-indicating torches and mirrors. Both spoke good English. Herman in fact is the son of a nightwatchman at RN. Some years ago Kathy decided to teach English to the children of the workers: Herman shone at these lessons, and later went on to develop his interest in birds and to become an accomplished guide.

The reserve:

The pre-montane forest that covers the slopes was formerly somewhat degraded. Protection over many years has meant that it has very slowly matured and improved. A small sector of the reserve, known as the pasture, was formerly in agricultural use. Part of it is now being allowed to develop into secondary forest. The pasture is easy walking and you can find a slightly different range of birds: we saw Green Thorntail and White-winged Becard here.

Tawny-capped Euphonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia, copyright Dawn Pando

The forest trails:

These are exactly what you would expect in tropical forest. They are mostly single file paths that traverse the hillsides. Tree roots are plentiful, so you need to watch carefully where you tread. Wooden guard rails fence off sections where there are steep drops. Many of these guard rails looked new. There were no fallen branches on the trails: clearly the staff keep on top of this. The trails have steps on some of the steeper bits. Every now and again there are vantage points where you can look across vistas of valleys and volcanoes.

In the two valleys below RN, walking is straightforward: you follow quiet roads or farm tracks.

The birding:

The easiest place to see birds is the Lodge. You can bird from the balcony, as Kevin Easley did, for most of the day: his group saw 73 species and heard 14 more in one day. I have seen another recent report that spoke of recording 68 species there in one hour. In the forest it is somewhat harder, as is usually the case with tropical forest birding. You need patience. But it is like a lucky dip. There is an endless variety of possible species, and no two walks are the same. If you are lucky, and you encounter a bird army, your species count soars. The more time you can spend there, the more you will see. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was some bird activity throughout the day, though it was obviously best in the early morning and late afternoon.

Silver-throated Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager, copyright Stephen Tsuyuki

According to the checklist, 364 species have been seen on the reserve over many years. Of these only a paltry 13 have not been seen in recent years. Others of those on the checklist have probably only been seen for the first time in recent years. Indeed, after the checklist was produced, the guides recorded Lattice-tailed Trogon for the first time on the reserve earlier this year. In other words at least 352 species have been seen on the reserve alone over the last few years, so the range of birds looks fairly stable.

Including the areas outside the reserve, at least 439 species have been seen.

There are four speciality birds, according to the checklist:

Snowcap was easy, as it indicates it should be, being a regular at the forest feeders. Males were prominent here and also at the hummingbird pools. They are unique and gorgeous: glossy purple brown, contrasting snow white crown with a few half-raised feathers.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher was also easy, being regularly present yards from the Lodge on the edge of the clearing. It was also obligingly tame and very attractive.

Purplish-backed Quail Dove we heard but did not see – hardly a surprise for a QD. Herman reckoned that, over the last four years, the reserve had actually gained two further pairs.

White-crowned Manakin. An uncommon species, but we found a male on our first attempt.

Three other species that I was particularly pleased to see were Broad-billed Motmot, Tawny-throated Leaftosser and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. The first, coloured rufous, green and black was an elusive inhabitant of the gully, which it shared with the commoner Rufous Motmot. We found it on our third attempt. Its far-carrying call was remarkable and evocative, like the wheezy whistle of a long-dead steam engine ambling across the prairie. The Leaftosser is a rarity, but we had decent views of one sat on a rock by the hummingbird pools late one afternoon. As for the Woodnymph, I know they are common, but their colors at close range defy belief. They are real bling birds.

Crowned Woodnymph
Crowned Woodnymph, copyright Dawn Pando

The food and the company:

Every guest there seemed to enjoy the food. These were individually prepared dishes, not the buffet system common elsewhere. We thought it excellent. My wife, a gifted cook, commented that the amount of really fresh food they used was outstanding. As for Kathy, we found her wry, gentle but firm, very kind and thoughtful and a capable, hands-on manager. She is vastly experienced. RN was the only place in CR where we were able to eat with and talk to the owner.

At dawn staff place a flask of coffee on the balcony for the early-risers.

Hot sites nearby:

Just a few miles away are two valleys, the most visited being the Rio Tuis. The scenery is beautiful. According to Herman four pairs of Sunbittern breed in the two valleys, and visitors have a very good chance of seeing them. This of course is a highly sought-after species. We had brilliant views of one on the Rio Tuis flying slowly past us and then settling on a rock. This valley is good for mixed tanager flocks and, with a lot of luck, Lanceolated Monklet. We also saw Barred Hawk, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Torrent Tyrannulet, Buff-rumped Warbler and Emerald Tanager here.

CATIE is an agricultural research centre near Turrialba. It features a very large park with a lake covered in water-lilies.. There is a heronry on an island. Breeding species include Boat-billed Heron. We also saw Green Ibis (a rare stray here), nesting Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and stacks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, range-restricted but abundant here.

Platanillo Marsh is not far from the Lodge. We did not have time to go there, but it is known as a good site for White-throated Flycatcher, Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Sunbittern

We could not visit Cerro Silencio, again because of lack of time. This area is at elevations of 4000 – 5000 feet and holds many higher elevation species. The full hike is epic, and is only for the fit. The rewards however are many. Apart from the chance of Lovely Cotinga, the mountain holds Resplendent Quetzal, Sharpbill, Zeledonia, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and, well, loads and loads of pipe-dream goodies.

Supporting Cast

Other species seen on or near the reserve included Great Tinamou,Double-toothed Kite,Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Gray-headed Chachalaca,White-tipped and Gray-chested Dove Ruddy Quail Dove, Brown-hooded and White-crowned Parrot, Common Potoo, Short-tailed Nighthawk, Black Swift, Green and Stripe-throated Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violet-ear,Green-breasted Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green-crowned Brilliant, Rufous Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Collared Aracari, Black-cheeked, Hoffmann's and Golden-olive Woodpecker, Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Foliager-Gleaner, Olivaceous, Cocoa, Spotted and Streak-headed Woodcreper, Immaculate & Spotted Antbird, White-ruffed and White-collared Manakin,Ochre-bellied and Olive-striped Flycatcher, Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher,Yellow-olive Flycatcher, White-throated Spadebill,Sulpur-rumped, Grey-capped & Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Flammulated Attila, Rufous Mourner, Cinnamon Becard, Black-throated, Bay, Stripe-breasted & Scaly-breasted Wren, Golden-winged and Golden-crowned Warbler, Black & Yellow,Olive, White-shouldered and White-lined Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Passerini's Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Red-throated Ant Tanager, Speckled, Bay-headed and Golden-hooded Tanager, Thick-billed Seed Finch, Black-striped Sparrow, Yellow-billed Cacique.

Further afield:

RN can drive you to Volcan Turrialba for high altitude species, to Tapanti National Park (medium to high elevation birding) and to Lankester Gardens: about 2 hours away, you can find orchids, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, White-eared Ground Sparrow etc. It is in fact a convenient stopover en route to or from San Jose.

If you are with a non-birder, he or she may find Turrialba interesting: it is a centre for adventure activities. Whilst on that topic, RN can arrange horse-riding around the reserve.

Transfers and excursions:

RN has just bought two nearly-new minivans.


Unlike many lodges, RN actually owns the land around it including its tropical forest reserve with at least 352 recently seen species of birds. How many of us can say the same? RN safeguards this reserve. If RN had not existed for the last 20 years, it is likely that farmers would have trashed the forest long ago and turned it into sugarcane, or coffee, or the latest fad, ferns grown for Asia. The species range remains tremendously good, but the future well-being of this forest will depend upon eco-tourists continuing to take the trouble to go there. RN is a classic instance of eco-tourism encouraging biodiversity. As conservationists in Africa say: “If it don’t pay, it don’t stay”: if people did not go on safari, or pay big sums to see gorillas, the land would be ploughed up and the animals would disappear. So it is in Costa Rica.

Furthermore, RN harbours hopes of buying large tracts.of Cerro Silencio. What a fantastic achievement that would be! I hope in the future that it will be possible to put some flesh on this idea.

The hum of human happiness:

You can always tell a good lodge by looking at what everybody is doing before dinner. At RN folk were on the balcony, some earnestly discussing the day’s results, some expectantly scanning with binoculars to squeeze one last lifer out of the day, some murmuring as they slowly dismantled massive cameras, and all looking contentedly forward to a delicious meal. At Rancho Naturalista I’m sure I detected the hum of human happiness.

How good is it?

It was, by a considerable distance, the best place in CR that we visited. It had the best set-up, accommodation, food, proximity of forest, range of good birds nearby and guides. The other three places we stayed at were Hotel Bougainvillea outside San Jose, Savegre Mountain Lodge and Punta Leona near Carara NP. On a worldwide rating, I would put RN in the top 15% of places I have stayed in. I would have put it higher, only some of the lodges in Africa are simply unbeatable.


I honestly could not fault RN. One small-scale point is that, because of its elevation, RN does not need screens on the windows to deter mosquitoes. A few harmless insects were present. For us this was a real plus: we had fireflies dancing in the dark over our heads at night in bed. Magic.

Away from RN, I was disconcerted initially by the increased urbanisation in the Valle Central and by the amount of land used for agriculture as we drove eastwards, but this is hardly the fault of RN and, from the information on the checklist, from my own observations and those of many other birders, RN and the areas close by continue to attract an amazing range of species. Plus it is simply a lovely place to visit and a place where they really cosset you.

To go or not to go?

Just go. E mail ranchonat@racsa.co.cr or jkerb@racsa.co.cr. If you can pack up your old kit bag and go in the summer or fall, Kathy may have some bargain deals for you.

Thanks to Dawn Pando from Texas for her enormous help with sourcing the photos, including those from Robert Rock and Stephen Tsuyaki who have donated their pictures for use by RN.

Richard Sutton
June 2007