I found myself heading for Costa Rica on a business trip at the beginning of June 2002. Being a very enthusiastic birder I was relishing the chance to visit one of the most well known birding areas in Costa Rica, Rancho Naturalista (www.ranchonaturalista.com), set at an altitude of 3300ft on the Talamanca Mountains in the foothills of the Caribbean slope "Rancho" as it is affectionately known is one of the prime birding areas of Costa Rica where over 400 species have been recorded in or around the ground.
All of the arrangements for a three night stay were made through the very efficient and welcoming Costa Rica Gateway email@example.com which organise specialist birding tours in Costa Rica. The lodge caters for birders and have very competent guides to help you identify the many species. During my time there I was guided by highly enthusiastic Andrew Walker firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and during the high season the head guide is Steven Easley firstname.lastname@example.org who is well known as a very good guide.
Rancho is owned by the same American family that runs Costa Rica Gateway, they also own and run Tarcol Lodge [accessed through www.ranchonaturalista.com ], a small rustic hotel on the mouth of the Rio Tarcoles, also a wonderful area for birds with 400 species recorded there. Tarcol Lodge is an ideal location for visiting Carara National Park where specialities such as Baird's Trogon and Scarlet Macaw await your arrival.
Unfortunately due to time constraints I only had time to visit one of the areas and I choose Rancho due to its very high quality food and accommodation combined with some truly amazing birding. When reading guide books about the best time to visit Costa Rica many state that the wet season is the time to be avoided. June is in the wet season but this didn't have any effect on the days birding with most rain, when it did rain falling late in the afternoon or in the evening. At this time of year there are also some South American migrants around to help swell an already impressive list of birds.
The brief outline of the day is as follows:
· Pre-breakfast birding with tea or coffee off the balcony, expect around 35-40 species in a morning (Over 250 species have been recorded from the balcony).
· Morning birding in the hotels grounds.
· Return to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.
· Afternoon birding around the hotel grounds or a local area such as the Tuis Valley.
· Evening meal followed by a run through of the days sightings.
The following is a summary of the day and the highlight species. A full list of the species seen follows the day lists below.
I arrived at Rancho in the afternoon after my pre-arranged transport organised through Costa Rica Gateway dropped me off. I was met by my enthusiastic guide, Andrew Walker who would spend the next three days showing me around the beautiful grounds of Rancho and the surrounding area. After checking into my luxurious en-suite room we spent the last hour of light wandering around the gardens and pastures around the hotel picking up species such as Grey-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-billed Cacique and Crimson-collared Tanager. We then ate a beautifully cooked meal, went through our hours sightings and went to bed ready to prepare for the coming days birding.
My first morning started off bright and early at 5am with a nice strong cup of coffee, I awoke to the calls of Common Pauraque on the lawn outside the hotel, then I progressed to the balcony where trees covered in bananas and birds welcomed me along with many hummingbird feeders filled with waiting birds. Highlights of the first mornings balcony birding included; Green Violet-ear, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, Slaty Spinetail, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black-throated Wren, Golden-hooded Tanager and the stunning but very common Passerini's Tanager. Our breakfast soon followed and that was beautiful too.
The morning walk into the forest was breathtaking; we reached the "Hummingbird Feeders" for the first time and were greeted by 8 species including one of the hotels speciality birds, the Snowcap. We soon found another of the hotels speciality birds, a family party of Tawny-chested Flycatchers, as most species have just finished breeding at the beginning of June there seems to be an abundance of birds present. The Tawny-chested Flycatcher is a very local bird and is found regularly in the grounds of Rancho. We progressed further into the forest where we were met with pairs of Collared, Violaceous and Black-throated Trogons as well as White-collared, White-ruffed and White-crowned Manakin males, Eye-ringed Flatbill and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. However, bird of the morning in my book was the pair of incredible Brown-billed Scythebill that showed down to less than 10 feet when called in by Andrew!!!
We returned to Rancho for our well deserved lunch and very welcome siesta, allowing chance for morning counts and summaries to be made.
The afternoon birding was just as exciting as the mornings with some incredible birds seen including Great Tinamou with a very young chick, Rufous Motmot, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and then the highlight of the afternoon, Snowcap and the even more stunning Purple-crowned Fairy, Andrews favourite species of hummingbird, both bathing in the "Hummingbird Pools", a sight needing to be seen to be believed. Several species of hummingbird come down to the water and bath before going to roost for the night. An incredible end to my first day birding in Costa Rica, who said the wet season wasn't very good for birding?
The day was finished off beautifully with a delicious family style meal, cooked to perfection by their chef rounded off nicely with coffee and a run through of the days sightings totalling around a hundred species.
The second morning started off where the previous morning had left off, coffee and very good birds. The birding highlight was easily a Fiery-throated Hummingbird that briefly landed by the balcony, a very rare bird to the Rancho property list by all accounts. Locally uncommon hummingbirds inevitably turn up in strange places occasionally and the wet season and the Rancho balcony seem to go together. Hummingbirds are known to take part in what is known as post breeding dispersion, occurring, during the wet season. Recent unusual wet season sightings by Andrew and the other guides at Rancho include Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-gem and Long-tailed Hermit (2000) and Long-billed Starthroat, Long-tailed Hermit, Garden Emerald and White-tipped Sicklebill (found nesting on the property for the first confirmed time) all 2001 and Long-billed Starthroat, 2002. So with these recent records a trip in the wet season looks quite likely to turn up an uncommon hummer!! Other balcony highlights for the morning included the ever present Montezuma Oropendola, White-throated Crake and the unfortunate pair of Rufous-capped Warblers, feeding "their" Bronzed Cowbird chick. Life is harsh in the Neotropics.
The morning walk again proved incredible, highlights were many and included, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Grey-headed Piprities (with nesting material), Green Shrike-Vireo (with nesting material), Dotted-winged Antwren, Slaty Antwren, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Black and Yellow Tanager and another close up view of the incredible Brown-billed Scythebill.
Lunch was just as good as the previous day and the siesta was a welcome rest from all of the new birds I was seeing!! The afternoon started off on the same good note with interesting species including, Stripe-breasted Wren, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Russet Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dusky, Spotted and Dull-mantled Antbird and Thicket Antpitta. The "Hummingbird Pools" were missed out due to a combination of seeing so many good birds before and finally the rain coming with a huge thunderstorm for the last hour of light.
Again a delicious meal was waiting for our return and we duly cleared up our plates after a great days birding. Dinner was again followed by a session of check listing, again we had seen around a hundred species including many different from the previous day.
It was my final morning and I was wondering what surprise would be waiting for me from the balcony. I didn't have too long to wait with stunning, incredible close-up views of Little Tinamou, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (a South American migrant), Black-crested Coquette and White-winged Becard. Breakfast was taken and we were quickly out into the forest.
Birds were everywhere with many exciting new birds being seen. These included; Bay-headed Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, White-shouldered Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, these were great but were however over-shadowed by two birds encountered just a few corners away. First a small-medium sized bird popped up out of nowhere, Thrush-like Schiffornis 6 feet away, then as if by magic a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove strolled across the trail oblivious to Andrew and myself, the third speciality of Rancho. Two amazing birds so close together gave cause to celebrate! We returned to the hotel for lunch, followed not by a siesta but a trip to the Rio Tuis for a slightly different range of birds.
We arrived at the drop off point and walked a track for about 500 meters, in that distance we saw a number of different species, including; Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Silver-throated and Emerald Tanager, American Swallow-tailed Kite, American Dipper and Buff-rumped Warbler. We returned to Rancho ready to meet with my transfer back to the airport and back home to England. While having a last look off the balcony at the volcanoes, Irazu and Turrialba a small group of Cattle Egrets flew through.
My transfer arrived like clockwork and I left the highly competent crew who had catered to my every need behind me and I left with many lasting memories of a beautiful country with a huge bird list.
I benefited because of the false impression of Costa Rica in the wet season, many people avoid visiting due to the chance of rain, and this however, is not always the case and many good birds show well at this time of year. There is also a greater chance to have a guide all to yourself and hence see a lot of very good birds as in my case.
All in all June seems like a very good time to visit Costa Rica, especially if the North American migrants are not very important to your trip list size! I managed to SEE 151 species in my three full days birding at Rancho. If I had have had time to combine my stay at Rancho with some time at Costa Rica Gateways other lodge, Tarcol Lodge I probably would have added another 150 species in the same amount of time. Unfortunately for me, time was against me. However I would like to thank all at Rancho Naturalista and Costa Rica Gateway for making my stay as enjoyable as it was and expect to see me again soon.