My father and I took a quick trip to Costa Rica in an attempt to find some Caribbean foothill specialties. My father has been on two guided trips to Costa Rica, including one that visited the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. I had been to Costa Rica once but spent all my time on the Pacific side. We visited two sites (Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista). Targets for this trip included such Rancho Naturalista specialties as Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, Purplish-backed Quail Dove, Brown-billed Scythebill, Dull-mantled Antbird, and Tawny-chested Flycatcher. Rancho Naturalista may be the most accessible/easiest place to see most of these species.
These two locations can easily be done without a guide/tour. The sites are accessible from San Jose within a 2 hour drive and the driving (outside of San Jose) is relatively straightforward.
Primary Locations: Rancho Naturalista and Tapanti National Park
Itinerary: We arrived at San Jose International Airport on August 9, 2008 around 9:15pm. We left San Jose very early in the morning of August 10 and drove to Tapanti. We arrived at Rancho Nautralista on the afternoon of August 10 and stayed 3 nights.
Birds and Reference material: For a field guide, we used the Skiles and Skutch, Birds of Costa Rica, copyright 1989. There is a new Costa Rican field guide available (The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Richard Garrigues, 2007). The illustrations in the Garrigues guide are improved from the Skiles book, and it is more compact so easier to carry in the field. Plus, the new guide has maps (no maps in the Skiles guide, just a description of the locations with altitude ranges, which is perhaps more important than a map). Finally, the Skiles book provides much more detailed information (text) for each species which can be invaluable at times.
We downloaded target species to our MP3 player from xeno-canto
We brought a small speaker so that we could tape in species. The guide at Rancho Naturalista, however, had all the necessary tapes and equipment so we only used our recordings at Tapanti.
Guides: We were self guided at Tapanti. Rancho Naturalista provides guiding service in their prices. Our primary guide at Rancho was Hermon who is excellent and really made the trip a success. He knows the locations, actions, and calls of all the species and is quite friendly. His wife Jennifer is also guiding and she has excellent eyes for spotting species in the forest.
Timing of the trip: The dry/high season is from December to April. Most tour groups go to Costa Rica during this time. At least one large North American bird tour company runs a one week trip based at Rancho Naturalista (usually over the New Years holiday). The rainy season extends from May to October/November. Reportedly, there is a rain hiatus in July/beginning of August. Due to my availability, we went during the 2nd week of August. Trips at this time can expect moderate to heavy rain in the afternoons. Tapanti is notoriously rainy year round and on our arrival to Tapanti it was raining.
Airport: Costa Rica has two airports for international arrivals (San Jose – SJO and Liberia – LIR). Most arrive at San Jose International airport. The San Jose airport is relatively new and easy to get through. We had no problems at customs. Rental car agencies are located as you exit customs. They will then transport you the 1-2 km to their offices.
Transportation: Driving is on the right side of the road and the vehicles have the steering wheel on the left side of the car (standard USA driving). Driving was relatively easy, although roads are not well signed in Costa Rica. Be aware that San Jose can have some terrible traffic conditions. We got into some major traffic in San Jose on Wednesday afternoon and it took us over an hour to get through the city (to the airport).
We rented from Advantage Rental Car (Economy Rental Car). We rented a 4 wheel drive, but we never needed the 4 wheel drive anywhere we drove. The high clearance on the 1.4km drive from the main road to Rancho Naturalista was helpful, but you could navigate with care in a small vehicle. A small 2 wheel drive may have trouble (especially if the road were wet), but you would almost certainly make it. Four wheel drive is unnecessary at Tapanti. Again, high clearance was nice at Tapanti (the last few kilometers of the road are not paved), but a regular car could make it with care.
Costa Rica allows you to waive the insurance for your rental car if you claim that your credit card will cover it. They require (reportedly by law) that you get liability insurance (for the parties that you damage).
Gas was expensive (if I did the calculation correct, it was nearly US $6 per gallon). Gas stations were common in all towns we drove through. I did not have to get a Costa Rica driver’s license or show an International Driver’s license. My California driver’s license was satisfactory.
Maps: I picked up a map at the rental car agency. This was somewhat helpful but as the Costa Rican roads are poorly marked, maps are not always that helpful.
Taxis and local transportation: Taxis appeared common. You can get to Rancho Naturalista (at least to the entrance, off the main road) by public bus from San Jose (although you would have to do some changing along the way, ultimately taking the bus to Plantanillo and asking the driver to let you off at the Rancho entrance). I am not sure if you can get to Tapanti by public transport. I would guess that you could not.
Language: The official language is Spanish. Although English was spoken at Rancho Naturalista by our guides, most Costa Ricans do not speak English so some basic Spanish is helpful, especially if you need to get directions.
Money: Currency is the Costa Rican Colon. US $ were accepted the few places we tried and we paid for gas with credit cards. Bills of US $20 or less should be accepted at all places with change provided in colones.
Hotels and Food: We stayed at the Garden Court Hotel at the San Jose airport. This was relatively expensive/overpriced but we booked for ease of use. It is adjacent to the airport, and we did not want to drive around San Jose on Saturday night trying to find a hotel. We booked (US $114/night) on their website
Included in the price was a basic breakfast for two (at Denny’s, located next to the hotel) and wireless internet. Denny’s reportedly starts serving this breakfast at 0500 but you can go earlier as Denny’s is open 24 hours).
We stayed at Rancho Naturalista for the next three nights. Food was very good (breakfast at 0700, lunch 1200 and dinner 1800). Owners were friendly and accommodating. Our room was large, clean and very functional. See their website http://aboutcostarica.biz/ranchonaturalista/index.html
Our guide packed us a breakfast for the morning that we hiked up to the top of the property (left the Rancho lodge at 0500 and did not return until 1200).
Directions to sites:
Tapanti: The drive from the San Jose Airport to Tapanti took less than 2 hours on Sunday morning (we departed very early so there was no traffic in San Jose). Directions as follows: go south from San Jose on the main road (Hwy 2) to Cartago. As the road descends from the pass, you will see a Shell station on your right. Almost immediately after the Shell station, there is a one lane road that goes to your left (this is an unsigned exit to Cartago). As you enter Cartago, there is a cemetery on your right. At the eastern corner of the cemetery, turn right and go two blocks and turn left (if you get to the stop light, you have gone too far, the stoplight is the third block). After you turn left, you will be on a main road in Cartago that goes east (it also becomes one way). This road will take you through Cartago. Continue on to Paraiso (essentially there is development continuously from Cartago to Paraiso so it is unclear when Cartago stops and Paraiso begins). As you enter the center of Paraiso, you will come to a square/town park. You will turn right (Just before the square). There is a sign for Orosi at this turn. You want to go toward Orosi. Set your odometer at the right turn next to the square in Paraiso. As you descend into and through the Orosi Valley, you will cross several bridges as well as some coffee plantations. There are a couple of side roads that turn to the right but do not take these side roads. Stay on the main road. Approximately 10km from the turn in Paraiso, you will come to a T intersection. Turn right at this T intersection. Just after the right turn there is a sign for Tapanti. Follow this road to Tapanti. It is approximately, 10km more from the T intersection to Tapanti National park. You will pass a large power station on your right. Also the road will go from being paved to gravel. Eventually you will reach the Tapanti ranger station (on the right). The Tapanti National Park charge is US $10 per person. Best birding was along the road (especially beyond the fence that blocks the road at the upper end of the park). I was also told that birding was good near the ranger station. See the Tapanti website:
If you are looking for lodging very close to Tapanti, I would suggest Hotel Kiri Lodge Tapantí as it is within a few kilometers from the ranger station. You will see the signs for Hotel Kiri on the way into Tapanti (after the power station). The road to Hotel Kiri turns to the left from the road to Tapanti. I can not comment on the hotel quality.
Rancho Naturalista (the site is approximately 19km by road, southeast of Turrialba): The turn for this site is located just south of the small town of Tuis. Once you confirm your visit at Rancho Naturalista, they will send you a map by email (which is easy to follow and includes distances in kilometers). Bookings are handled through Costa Rica Gateway, website: http://www.costaricagateway.com/index.php
The Costa Rica Gateway site has a checklist for Rancho Naturalista with bird abundance.
Rancho Naturalista has a well developed trail system behind the lodge and most of the specialties occur along these trails. We spent most of our time on the “lower” trails although some species (White-crowned Manakin, Purplish backed Quail Dove) are best found on the “upper” trails. In addition, the “gardens” around the lodge are quite productive and the hummingbird show is easily watched from the balcony.
CATIE: This is an agricultural station east of Turrialba. Shortly after leaving Turrialba (approximately 5 km), you will pass by CATIE on your left (north side of the road). There are three entry gates to this private property. Entrance fee is US $5.00 per person. For birding, I would suggest the middle entry gate (which is the largest). After paying at the middle entrance, go straight back to the large pond. Heading west (left) after entry takes you to the botanical gardens. The large pond, however, has the most interesting birds including a reliable spot for Boat-billed Heron (look among the Cattle Egrets on the bamboo island). Green Ibis has been seen frequently on this property and the Rancho guide has seen up to 15 at this site. We, however, did not see any Green Ibis on our drive through this area.
Departure Tax: Costa Rica has a departure tax of US $26. It is payable as you check in to depart at the airport. I understand you can pay by credit card but a cash advance charge will be applied (and the fees for such will be charged by your credit card company).
Weather & Clothing: It rained briefly on our morning at Tapanti and on two of the afternoons at Rancho Naturalista. Obviously rain gear (umbrella, poncho, rain jacket, etc) is necessary, even during the dry season. It can be chilly in the dark with the rain at elevation (Tapanti) as temperatures may get as low as 60 degrees F.
Biting animals: Mosquitoes were a minimal problem at Rancho Naturalista along the trails. DEET 20% was adequate. We never saw a snake but Fer De Lance reportedly occur. We had no problems with ticks or leeches.
Advice: I would advise a three night stay at Rancho Naturalista with birding the trails all those dates. If you stay longer, side/half day trips to a local mountain (for high elevation species), Tapanti, CAITE, Volcan Poas and the Caribbean lowlands (EARTH university) can be taken from Rancho. Two nights at Rancho would be a minimum, but you run the risk of missing key species (especially if there is rain). We saw our only Black-billed Scythebill on the last afternoon before we left and saw our only Thicket Antpitta and Black-headed Nightingale Thrush on the morning of our last day. Had we only spent two nights, we would have missed seeing all three of these species.
Great Tinamou: heard one afternoon along trails at Rancho Naturalista but not seen (surprisingly Little Tinamou was never heard, despite it being reportedly more common than Great Tinamou)
Cattle Egret: common at CATIE and 4 seen flying over the valley from Rancho Naturalista
Green Heron: three in a marsh near La Suiza
Black-crowned Night-Heron: two immatures at CATIE
Boat-billed Heron: one in the Cattle Egret bamboo island at CATIE
Black Vulture: common throughout
Turkey Vulture: slightly less common than Black Vulture
Swallow-tailed Kite: about 12 seen at Tapanti
Gray-headed Chachalaca: abundant at feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Black Guan: one seen along the road in the area above the fence at Tapanti. There is a fence across the main road at the upper portion of Tapanti. There is a car park at this fence. We parked the car and walked up the road. The birding was very good here as we ran into a large mixed flock with several good species. Tapanti is reportedly one of the best areas for Black Guan.
White-throated Crake: one heard in wet scrub along side of road near Tuis
Purple Gallinule: several in the pond at CATIE
Northern Jacana: several at CATIE and along road near La Suiza
Spotted Sandpiper: in river near Tuis. Early migrant??
Rock Pigeon: common in San Jose
Red-billed Pigeon: several at Rancho Naturalista
Short-billed Pigeon: several seen and commonly heard at Rancho Naturalista
Mourning Dove: one flying over at Cartago
White-tipped Dove: several in gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Gray-chested Dove: 3-4 along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove: On our first full day, we flushed one along the upper trails but unfortunately only two of us (me and the Rancho guide) saw it and the very brief look was just a view of a grayish Quail-Dove in flight. Later, we heard one and eventually tracked it down and all of us got good looks at it from the trail. Also, one was heard calling on our second full day. Rancho Naturalista is reportedly the best site in Costa Rica for this species.
Crimson-fronted Parakeet: several sightings at Rancho Naturalista
Brown-hooded Parrot: several sightings at Rancho Naturalista
White-crowned Parrot: group of 6 seen flying at Rancho Naturalista
Squirrel Cuckoo: heard and seen each day at Rancho Naturalista
Pauraque: flushed one day at Rancho Naturalista
Chestnut-collared Swift: group of 10 flying over Rancho Naturalista one afternoon
White-collared Swift: group of 6 flying over Rancho Naturalista one afternoon
Vaux's Swift: one on drive to Rancho Naturalista
Band-tailed Barbthroat: two birds found working on a nest on the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Green Hermit: several on the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Stripe-throated Hermit: several seen on the trails and a lek at Rancho Naturalista
White-necked Jacobin: abundant at Rancho Naturalista
Brown Violet-ear: common during the rainy season at Rancho Naturalista
Green-breasted Mango: very common at Rancho Naturalista
Violet Sabrewing: one male was coming to the feeders at Rancho Naturalista but I believe that I was the only one to miss it.
Violet-headed Hummingbird: at the feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Black-crested Coquette: adult male seen two mornings feeding on the flowers in the garden and an immature found feeding at the top of a tree along the trails
Green Thorntail: male and female coming to the flowers at Rancho Naturalista
Garden Emerald: at the feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Black-bellied Hummingbird: one bird at Tapanti. Tapanti is supposedly a very reliable spot for this species, but we only had one.
Violet-crowned Woodnymph: common at the forest feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird: common at the feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Snowcap: male and female fed on the flowers at Rancho and were easily observable from the breakfast table and balcony everyday. Also, several males were seen in the forest at Rancho Naturalista. This is the most reliable, year-round site for this species.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer: One bird in the garden and one bird at the forest feeders at Rancho Naturalista
White-bellied Mountain-gem: around 5 birds at Tapanti (a reliable spot for this species)
Purple-throated Mountain-gem: one female at Tapanti
Green-crowned Brilliant: feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Purple-crowned Fairy: one bird at Tapanti and one at the hummingbird pools at Rancho Naturalista
Violaceous Trogon: several along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Black-throated Trogon: heard calling at Rancho on the lower trails, despite spending lots of time looking for the bird we could not find it.
Blue-crowned Motmot: 2 coming to the feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Rufous Motmot: one along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Red-headed Barbet: two at Tapanti
Prong-billed Barbet: four at Tapanti
Collared Aracari: two from trails at Rancho Naturalista
Keel-billed Toucan: seen everyday at Rancho Naturalista
Black-cheeked Woodpecker: pair coming regularly to feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Hoffmann's Woodpecker: at feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Smoky-brown Woodpecker: trails at Rancho Naturalista
Rufous-winged Woodpecker: one bird in mixed flock along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Golden-olive Woodpecker: pair in disturbed forest at Rancho Naturalista
Red-faced Spinetail: common at Tapanti
Spotted Barbtail: 3 birds at Tapanti
Lineated Foliage-gleaner: one in mixed flock at Tapanti
Streak-breasted Treehunter: one in mixed flock at Tapanti
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner: one in mixed flock at Rancho Naturalista
Tawny-throated Leaftosser: pair in hummingbird pools on our first afternoon at Rancho Naturalista and then one bird seen one morning along the trails
Plain Xenops: one in mixed flock at Rancho Naturalista
Plain-brown Woodcreeper: one along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Olivaceous Woodcreeper: one at Tapanti
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper: several along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Cocoa Woodcreeper: one at moth lamp at Rancho Naturalista
Spotted Woodcreeper: several along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Streak-headed Woodcreeper: several along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Brown-billed Scythebill: one in mixed flock along lower trails at Rancho Naturalista
Russet Antshrike: one on upper trails at Rancho Naturalista
Plain Antvireo: several in mixed flocks along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Checker-throated Antwren: male and female in mixed flock along lower trails at Rancho Naturalista
Slaty Antwren: several seen along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Dot-winged Antwren: one along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Dusky Antbird: seen several days along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Dull-mantled Antbird: seen one day and heard multiple days along lower trails at Rancho Naturalista (near hummingbird pools)
Immaculate Antbird: at least 2 heard before seeing one on trails at Rancho Naturalista
Black-faced Antthrush: two birds heard on two mornings and then one seen the last morning walking along lower trails at Rancho Naturalista. The checklist reports this species abundance to be a “6” (one or two records, not to be expected. Confirmation needed.) Our guide reports that this species has been present for the last several years on the property.
Fulvous-bellied (Thicket) Antpitta: at least 3 different birds heard calling during our stay. On our last morning, one came in to the tape and sat perched about 20 feet away. This is a common bird in Costa Rica, but it is very difficult to see.
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo: responded to tape at Tapanti but was never seen
White-crowned Manakin: two males along upper trails at Rancho Naturalista
White-ruffed Manakin: several seen along trails at Rancho Naturalista
White-collared Manakin: several seen along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Torrent Tyrannulet: one along stream at Tapanti
Paltry Tyrannulet: several seen at both Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Slaty-capped Flycatcher: seen at both Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Olive-striped Flycatcher: seen at both Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher: several along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant: commonly seen along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Common Tody-Flycatcher: in gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Eye-ringed Flatbill: pair on upper trails at Rancho Naturalista
Yellow-olive Flycatcher: several along trails at Rancho Naturalista
White-throated Spadebill: one along upper trails at Rancho Naturalista
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher: a pair around the moth lamp at Rancho Naturalista
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher: one along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Tawny-chested Flycatcher: one seen near moth lamp at Rancho Naturalista and one heard in forest trails during a morning hike. This is a Rancho Naturalista specialty. Our room was next to the moth lamp and as we were putting our things in our room after arriving, we heard it calling next to the moth lamp and walked right up to this specialty. Very nice way to start the trip at Rancho Naturalista.
Yellowish Flycatcher: one in mixed flock at Tapanti
Dark Pewee: one at Tapanti
Tropical Pewee: one along road to Ranch Naturalista
Tufted Flycatcher: several at Tapanti
Black Phoebe: several along the river on road to Rancho Naturalista
Piratic Flycatcher: in disturbed forest at Rancho Naturalista
Social Flycatcher: common
Great Kiskadee: common at Rancho Naturalista
Golden-bellied Flycatcher: pair at Tapanti
Boat-billed Flycatcher: at Rancho Naturalista
Tropical Kingbird: common
Rufous Mourner: pair in disturbed forest at Rancho Naturalista
Dusky-capped Flycatcher: one in gardens at Rancho Naturalista and another on the trails
Cinnamon Becard: one in gardens at Rancho Naturalista
White-winged Becard: one calling in disturbed forest at Rancho Naturalista
Blue-and-white Swallow: several locations
Southern Rough-winged Swallow: several along rivers on drive to Rancho Naturalista
Band-backed Wren: heard calling and nesting in the gardens around Rancho Naturalista
Black-throated Wren: heard along the trails and seen in the gardens around Rancho Naturalista
Bay Wren: seen in the gardens around Rancho Naturalista
Stripe-breasted Wren: seen along the lower trails at Rancho Naturalista
House Wren: around the gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Ochraceous Wren: one seen at Tapanti
White-breasted Wood-Wren: seen several times and commonly heard along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren: one seen at Tapanti
Scaly-breasted Wren: one seen and heard along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Black-faced Solitaire: several seen on Tapanti
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush: one seen at Tapanti
Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush: heard everyday at Rancho Naturalista but only seen on the last morning
Mountain Robin: several at Tapanti
Clay-colored Robin: common throughout
Long-billed Gnatwren: one seen at Rancho Naturalista
Tropical Gnatcatcher: one seen in secondary forest at Rancho Naturalista
Brown Jay: common throughout
Yellow-green Vireo: one seen in the gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Tawny-crowned Greenlet: several seen in mixed flocks at Rancho Naturalista
Lesser Greenlet: one seen in mixed flocks at Rancho Naturalista
Yellow-crowned Euphonia: one heard and seen in the gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Olive-backed Euphonia: most common Euphonia at Rancho Naturalista
Tawny-capped Euphonia: both at Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista (common at Rancho)
Golden-browed Chlorophonia: surprisingly very common at Tapanti
Lesser Goldfinch: one on side of road as we drove from San Jose to Cartago
Tropical Parula: common at Rancho Naturalista along trails and in the gardens, two adults were watched feeding a juvenile
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat: one in wet scrub along side of road near Tuis
Slate-throated Redstart: seen at both Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Golden-crowned Warbler: common at Rancho Naturalista
Rufous-capped Warbler: several at Rancho Naturalista along trails
Bananaquit: common at both Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Common Bush-Tanager: very common at Tapanti
Olive Tanager: one seen repeatedly (every day) along lower trails at Rancho Naturalista
White-shouldered Tanager: one in disturbed forest at Rancho Naturalista
White-lined Tanager: male and female at feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Red-throated Ant-Tanager: along trails at Rancho Naturalista
Crimson-collared Tanager: male came to feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Passerini's Tanager: very common at Rancho Naturalista feeders
Blue-gray Tanager: common at Rancho Naturalista feeders
Palm Tanager: several came to Rancho Naturalista feeders
Silver-throated Tanager: very common at Tapanti
Bay-headed Tanager: one at Tapanti and several along the trails at Rancho Naturalista
Golden-hooded Tanager: several at Rancho Naturalista in disturbed habitat
Spangle-cheeked Tanager: several in mixed flocks at Tapanti
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis: one in disturbed habitat at Rancho Naturalista
Green Honeycreeper: a couple in mixed flocks in disturbed habitat at Rancho Naturalista
Blue-black Grassquit: along side of road on drive
Variable Seedeater: along side of road on drive
Yellow-faced Grassquit: at Tapanti and Rancho Naturalista
Sooty-faced Finch: one at Tapanti
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch: singing behind cabin at Rancho Naturalista
Orange-billed Sparrow: at least 3 including juvenile with dark bill at Rancho Naturalista feeders
Black-striped Sparrow: two in hedge in gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Rufous-collared Sparrow: common along drive to Tapanti
Grayish Saltator: on drive to Rancho Naturalista
Buff-throated Saltator: common at Rancho Naturalista
Black-headed Saltator: common at Rancho Naturalista
Black-thighed Grosbeak: one in Tapanti, unusual this low???
Melodious Blackbird: common at feeders at Rancho Naturalista
Great-tailed Grackle: abundant along drive
Bronzed Cowbird: one on wires at La Suiza
Scarlet-rumped Cacique: one in gardens at Rancho Naturalista
Chestnut-headed Oropendola: several around Rancho Naturalista
Montezuma Oropendola: very common at Rancho Naturalista