Costa Rica, May 2000

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


By Tom Harrison

If you had a business trip to Nicaragua, what would be the most important thing to do?

(a) get your shots
(b) learn conversational Spanish
(c) pack heavy-duty sun block
(d) Refresh your memory on the difference between the Sandinistas and the Contras

Sure those are all important, but for my money, the answer is:

(e) Check the routing of the airplane.

As I prepared for a one-week trip to Nicaragua, I found out from the travel agent that I had two choices to return to Los Angeles. Through Houston, Texas or through San Jose, Costa Rica. Hmmmmm. Let's see: Houston or Costa Rica? Houston or Costa Rica?

Holy Neo-tropicals, Batman! I think I'll fly through Costa Rica and when the plane stops, I'll get off. Yeah, that's the ticket.

First a word about the Nicaragua part of the trip.

I arrived April 30, 2000. It was all business, so I had little time to bird, but still managed a few interesting birds. I stayed at the Hotel Camino Real near the Managua airport. It's quite a nice hotel with a lovely pool, spa facilities, great service, good food and rather spacious grounds. In fact, on the hotel grounds over the next few days, I saw: Rufous-naped Wren, Great-tailed Grackle, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Clay-colored Robin, Black-cowled Oriole, White-winged Dove, Tropical Pewee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Red-billed Pigeon, Hoffmann's Woodpecker, Melodious Blackbird, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, Social Flycatcher,
Tropical Kingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, Groove-billed Ani, Spot-breasted Oriole, Bronzed Cowbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and Streaked Flycatcher.

Certainly better pickings than most airport hotels where I come from!

We spent some time visiting some outlying villages where we re-saw many of those species and added the following:

In and around Malacatoya we saw Great, Snowy, Reddish and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue and Tri-colored Herons, Northern Jacana, Great Kiskadee, Inca Dove, Black-throated Bobwhite, Black-necked Stilt, White-tailed Kite, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Blue-black Grassquit, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Fulvous Whistling-Duck.

In and around the out-of-the-way village of Colama, we had White-throated Magpie, Blue-crowned Motmot and Streak-backed Oriole.

In the town of Granada, we added Striped-headed Sparrow and Blue-and-white Swallow.

In all, I had 47 species in Nicaragua, of which 18 were life birds (complete list available on request). Not bad for snatching a few glances through binocs in between business sessions.

But that was just a warm-up for Costa Rica.

I sat at my departure gate at the Managua airport paging through A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica when I was approached by an airline employee. "Senor Harrison?" he asked. "Si," I replied with confidence. I didn't understand what he said in response to that because my Spanish is, um, limited. With
much concentration I can usually come up with a sentence that means, roughly, "I you cold house." He motioned for me to follow him back through Security and back to the Ticket agent where I was informed that my flight was cancelled, but that I could come back tomorrow. Ay Caramba!

All went well the next morning and my birding guide was waiting for me when I finally arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. I just love writing the words, "Costa Rica," since I've always wanted to visit there and was finally making it. Costa Rica. Yeah.

But with only three days to bird Costa Rica, I knew I had to make the most of this opportunity. To do that, I sounded out birdchat friends on the best guide to hire there and, on the recommendation of several cyber-buddies, settled on José Calvo Samayoa, aka Indio. This turned out to be an excellent choice. Indio was a delightful companion, speaks fluent English and is extremely knowledgeable about Costa Rican birds, including where to find which species and, most helpfully, their songs and calls.

Indio suggested a different location for each of our three days, with different target birds for each. We divided the trip as follows: Day One east to Braulio Carillo, Day Two south to Cerro de la Muerte, and Day Three west to Carara National Park.

Indio booked me a nice, but reasonably priced hotel (Hotel Residencias de Golf) not far from the San Jose airport. I checked in the morning of May 7, 2000, and then off we went for our first day of birding.

Day One - Braulio Carillo (sector Gonzales #2)

I had done a bit of homework with A Travel and Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica and was surprised that this site was not prominently featured. Turns out that it's only recently that there is good access here. It's a great location and less than an hour from San Jose.

From the small parking lot by the sign-in ranger house we saw Tawny-crested Tanager and several Collared Aracari. There were dozens of Montezuma Oropendola nests hanging over the road just outside the parking area, but we never saw the birds. Isn't it just typical to miss a common target bird and yet see some incredible rarities?

We crossed the highway and hiked a pretty good trail through relatively thick rain forest and saw Green Honeycreeper, Purple-crowned Fairy, Buff-throated Saltator, Long-tailed Tyrant, Black-faced Grosbeak, Variable Seedeater, Passerini's Tanager (split off from Scarlet-rumped Tanager), Violet-crowned Wood Nymph, Tawny-capped Euphonia, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Olive Tanager.

As I was angling for a better view of a Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Indio advised me to watch very carefully where I stepped due to the poisonous snakes. When he later aggressively brushed off spider webs, I asked whether any of the spiders in Costa Rica were poisonous. "Yes, all of them," he replied, "but they almost never bite." Swell. I spent the rest of the three days in Indio's back pocket.

We finished off the morning hike with Social Flycatcher, a remarkably close look at Spotted Wood-Quail, Swallow-tailed Kite, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Bat Falcon, Black and Yellow Tanager and Gray-rumped Swift.

For lunch, Indio took me to a roadside steak place about 10 minutes away, where we enjoyed great food at very reasonable prices and saw a Palm Tanager right from our table.

After lunch, we returned to Braulio Carillo to bird the path on the parking area side of the road. It involved more climbing which was made challenging by the rain. The rocks were slippery. We added Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Emerald Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Tropical Kingbird, Eastern Wood-Pewee and (Northern) Barred Woodcreeper. The highlights of the afternoon were good views of Crested Guan and Great Curassow. Thanks to Indio's expertise with bird song, we heard a Black-headed Nightingale Thrush and after much diligence, were rewarded with a good view.

Spider Monkeys and Howler Monkeys entertained us in the canopy above until we were finally driven out by the rain and we called it a day.

Day Two - Cerro de la Muerte

Indio picked me up at 4:00 am and we discussed our options for the day. I told him I really wanted to see a Quetzal, so he opted for the two-hour drive south of San Jose and up the Talamanca mountains to Cerro de la Muerte, the hospitable-sounding "Mountain of Death".

We stopped near our destination for breakfast. Like all the meals I had in Costa Rica, it was delicious, filling and remarkably inexpensive. In this case, eggs, rice, beans, toast, juice and coffee, for two, came to under $2US including tip. And there was a Sooty Robin in the parking lot of the truck stop.

At the summit (elevation 10,000 feet), we turned off the Interamerican highway (which leads south to Panama) to Cerro de la Muerte and were greeted by a flurry of bird activity. We had Rufous-collared Sparrow, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Black-capped Flycatcher from the car. We stopped at some small houses for two of our target birds for the day and, sure enough, had Large-footed Finch in the undergrowth and, as promised, a Volcano Junco attacking its reflection on a parked car's side-view mirror. We pulled over several more times on the way into the park and saw Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Mountain Robin, Clay-colored Robin, Emerald Toucanet, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-thighed Finch, Mountain Elaenia, Tufted Flycatcher, Band-tailed Pigeon and Acorn Woodpecker.

We rounded a sharp bend on the gravel road and I half-whispered, half-shouted, "Stop!" There was a stunning male Resplendent Quetzal on a fence post not 10 feet from my passenger side window. We studied him in silence and in awe. He flew to a branch not far away, then to another.

Eventually, we got out of the car and continued to study him through Indio's scope. What a gorgeous bird. And a moment I will never forget.

As long as we were out of the car, we looked around a bit and also saw Yellow-winged Vireo, Red-tailed Hawk and Blue-gray Tanager.

Can you believe we saw all this before we even reached the Cerro de la Muerte parking lot?!

In the parking area we saw Red-legged Honeycreeper, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Green Violet-ear, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush and Black Phoebe. Around the lodge feeders we enjoyed extreme close-up looks at Magnificent Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird, White-throated Mountain-Gem and Volcano Hummingbird.

We began an easy hike along the river where we added Gray-breasted Wood-wren,
Dark Pewee, Common Bush-Tanager, Brown-capped Vireo, Yellowish Flycatcher,
Black-faced Solitaire, Spangled-cheeked Tanager and Collared Redstart. Along the river we spotted a second male Quetzal which was almost as cooperative as the first.

After an enjoyable lunch at the lodge where I also bought a Quetzal t-shirt, we took the upper trail. This was a bit more strenuous due to the mid-day sun, the altitude and the climb, but not overly taxing. We added Hairy Woodpecker, Spot-crowned Creeper, Yellow-bellied Siskin, House Wren, Stripe-breasted Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-colored Tanager, and Torrent Tyrannulet. One of the highlights was when we came across a nesting Black-faced Solitaire tending to its young.

As we drove out of the park, we pulled over to see what had caught the attention of three other birders and observed our third Resplendent Quetzal of the day (another male) flying in and out of a cavity nest. Then just before the park gravel road joined up with the main highway, we saw a Wilson's Warbler as our final bird of the day. Mountain of Death? Nonsense. Mountain of Life Birds.

Day Three- Carara National Park

The target birds for our third and final day of birding together were Scarlet Macaw, Antbirds and Antshrikes, and whatever Trogons we could find. We drove north out of San Jose and then west toward the Pacific coast.
As dawn broke, we stopped just outside of Carara to look over the Tarcoles River. What an incredible variety of species from that one spot! Rufous-naped Wren, Inca Dove, White Ibis, Gray-breasted Martin, Variable Seedeater, Hoffmann's Woodpecker, Blue-black Grassquit, Ruddy Ground-Dove, three egret species, Wood Stork, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Northern Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper, Yellow-headed and Crested Caracara. Orange-chinned Parakeets and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flew overhead. And, last but certainly not least, several small groups of very noisy, low-flying Scarlet Macaws flew directly over us as they headed into Carara for the day. What a sight!

We followed the Macaws to the Tarcoles River Trail (not the main) entrance of Carara for our first stop. Within the first couple hundred yards we were greeted by Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Streaked Flycatcher, White-winged Becard, Rose-throated Becard, Piratic Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Gray-chested Dove, White-collared Swift and White-crowned Parrot.

Then we saw our first Trogon of the day (and the trip), a Violaceous Trogon. A Squirrel Cuckoo and Rufous-and-white Wren were followed quickly by a Black-throated Trogon. It was then I had the inkling that this would be a big day for Trogons, and I dubbed our outing "Trogon Tuesday". I was right. By the time the morning ended, we had five different Trogon species at Carara.

As we worked our way deeper into the woods, I was struck by the intensity of the heat and humidity compared to the prior two days. To make matters worse, I had wrongly assumed we'd spend only a short time at this stop and then move on, so I left my water bottle in the car. The birding was so spectacular that a couple hours had gone by without me realizing it and I was starting to feel woozy. Onward we went, however, bolstered by new species: Rufous-breasted Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Mealy Parrot, Orange-billed Sparrow, Orange-collared Manakin, Northern Bentbill (who makes up these names?!?), Red-legged Honeycreeper and Plain Xenops.

Trogon number three for the morning was a Baird's Trogon.

Clearly this path was the birdiest place of the trip. Black-hooded Antshrike, Buff-throated Saltator, Thick-billed Euphonia, Dusky Antbird, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Lesser Greenlet, Short-billed Pigeon. And Trogon number four: Black-headed Trogon.

We saw Barred Antshrike, Cherrie's Tanager (the other species split off from Scarlet-rumped Tanager), White-shouldered Tanager, Yellow-green Vireo, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Double-toothed Kite, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and Masked Tityra.

Thank goodness the birding was so good that it allowed us to walk (weave!) slowly.

There it was, Trogon number five for the morning: Slaty-tailed Trogon. And the delight is that we had second and third looks at several of the five Trogon species later in the day.

About three hours from our starting point, we came to the banks of the river, where we sat down to rest. I was really feeling that something was wrong with me by this point. We hadn't walked very far (maybe two miles), but the combination of no water, intense heat, thick humidity, travel, altitude, (OK, age, too) and the fact that I was fighting a cold and taking antihistamines really threw me for a loop. On the river we saw Boat-billed Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Green Kingfisher, Blue-crowned Motmot and a crocodile. We could hear the Macaws in the trees just beyond the water.

And I started to doubt I would live. But at least I was going out in style with a slew of life birds. In Costa Rica!

I embarrassingly confessed to Indio that I wasn't feeling well and that we needed to head back to the car to get water. My dizziness increased, but that didn't prevent us from adding Rufous-tailed Jacamar on the way out.

I drank a liter of water in the car and suggested we go to a restaurant. There I had another liter of water and we settled down for lunch. I honestly feared I was going to have to abort the day and ask to return to the hotel. My head was spinning. I was drenched in sweat. Have you ever noticed that you can usually smell other people but not yourself? You know how bad you have to smell before you can smell your own sweat? Let's just say I was afraid I was setting back US-Costa Rica relations.

We had a light but l-o-n-g lunch so I could rest and re-hydrate (Gatoraid) and I kept reminding myself that this was my last day to bird in Costa Rica and that I could sleep on the plane (or in my coffin, whichever came first). At the restaurant we added Groove-billed Ani and Cinnamon Hummer for the day.

Off we went to the main entrance of Carara for the afternoon. It was worth it. In addition to seeing many of the species from the morning, we added some good birds: Dot-winged Antwren, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Riverside Wren (which we had heard many times and now finally got to see). Just when you think you've seen it all, there's a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan perched right above the path. Not to mention Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, Bay-headed Tanager, Russet Antshrike, Black-tailed Flycatcher and some beautiful looks at several Ruddy Quail-Doves.

We also saw Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, White-tipped Dove, Long-billed Gnatwren, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark, Great Kiskadee, and Greenish Elaenia. A Great Tinamou called in the brush and surprised us by walking out where we could see it quite well.

We saw Eye-ringed Flatbill, Long-tailed Manakin, Long-tailed Hermit and Little Hermit, and as we returned to our car at around 5:00 to end the visit, the Scarlet Macaws were waiting for us in the trees above the headquarters building.

Quite a day! But it's not over. On the way home, not far from Carara, a raptor caught my eye. We pulled over and saw a Gray-headed Kite and a Gray Hawk harassing each other over the rights to a perch. Then Indio stopped at a small town just off the main highway and we walked into a typical town park.
Only this one had three Black-and-white Owls in one of the trees! I bid farewell to Indio with the appreciation of a wonderful time together. His last bit of advice was to check the garden of my hotel the next morning for Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. I did, and added it as my 182nd Costa Rican species of the three days, of which 122 were lifers (complete list available on request).

All I can say is that I can't wait for a return visit.

Tom Harrison
La Canada, California USA