Costa Rica - Frogs, Sweat and Tears, 18th April - 5th May 2003

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


by Ian Merrill

Friday 18th April

Lightening never strikes twice in the same place. KLM are a reputable airline and couldn’t possibly cock-up their flight connections on two consecutive trips, could they?

Marc Lansdowne, Martin Kennewell and Ian Merrill check in at Birmingham Airport, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, anticipating a 06.15 a.m. flight to Amsterdam. After numerous coffees and ten laps of the duty free hall later we finally board our flight, two hours late.

The wonderful views of the flat, watery Dutch landscape with its dazzling rectangles of tulip engendered reds and yellows should be a sight to savour; unfortunately our thoughts are elsewhere. Thanks to the delay we have just fifteen minutes to make our connecting flight. Our kindly flight attendant advises us of the route to take across the sprawling Schipol Airport, but warns that if we didn’t sprint all the way we will surely miss the connection.

I would, at this point, like to take the opportunity to apologise to the lengthy list of innocent bystanders, children, and old ladies who were knocked flying during the ensuing race across Schipol. Three red-faced, panting idiots, sporting heavy tripods and bulging rucksacks eventually arrive at the allotted gate, a trail of destruction and injury in their path. Boarding is already complete and only an urgent radio request to the cabin crew secures our last minute entry to the aircraft. We have made it but know that the baggage handlers lack our stealth and stamina. The 767 leaves the ground with us pondering as to when we will next see our belongings.

Around 17.00 local time, via a seemingly pointless couple of hours entertaining the U.S. Immigration Service in Miami, we find ourselves forlornly watching an empty baggage carousel at San Jose Airport. Inevitably our rucksacks fail to appear and we report their loss to our carrier. We are told that they should be delivered to us in the next couple of days.

San Jose must surely hold the accolade as the capitol city with the worst traffic system in the entire world. We collect our hire car and head east along a well-maintained dual carriageway. As we approach the edge of the conurbation, however, the dual carriageway abruptly ends. Quite ridiculously we find ourselves travelling through a grid of narrow shop-lined streets. To compound the confusion there is an unintelligible one-way system in place and an almost total absence of road signs! A detailed street map and some astute map reading are engaged and eventually we fight our way out of the traffic and emerge miraculously unscathed on the Puerto Limon Road.

Geographically, Costa Rica is a relatively straightforward country to define. Approximately 150 kilometres between Caribbean and Pacific Coasts and 300 kilometres in length, the country is divided by a backbone of volcanic mountain ridges running northwest to southeast. These mountains become progressively larger and higher towards the Panamanian border. The presence of this ridge, in fact a continuation of the mighty Andes which run the length of South America, has lead to a starkly different avifauna developing on either side of the physical divide. This fact, combined with the great range of elevation (many peaks being well in excess of 3000 metres) provides access to a huge number of bird species within a very limited area. Add to this the fact that almost one third of the country receives some form of conservation related protection and that it also possesses, quite rarely in the region, a stable government and you have the perfect Central American birding destination.

So early evening finds us winding our way north, leaving behind San Jose and the Pacific Slope, and heading towards our first port of call which is actually to the far side of the Continental Divide. The capital city is a typical, sprawling Latin American metropolis; a conglomeration of modern commercial areas, bustling middle-class businesses purveying all manner of produce, and inevitably some sprawling slums. Surprisingly soon, however, we are winding our way through steep, densely forested hills. The road is well maintained, but it’s steep winding nature and the huge number of massive articulated lorries that it conveys makes progress painfully slow. Soon we ascend above the cloud base and thick, foggy cloud takes vision down to a bonnet’s length, thus adding to the enjoyment of the journey!

When a welcoming roadside stall emerges from the mist we stop for a well-deserved drink and break. The stall is stacked high with all manner of exotic fruit, some recognisable, some totally foreign, but it is the fantastic array of moths attracted to the bright lights that instantly grab our attention. Stunning insects of all shapes, colours and sizes adorn every flat surface. We spend the next half-hour searching for increasingly breathtaking specimens and amuse the stall’s proprietors with our gasps of awe and photographic madness.

It’s getting late in the evening by the time we find a decent room in a hotel on the outskirts of Guapiles, a small town on the edge of the Caribbean lowlands located within easy striking distance of Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. We don’t have any bags, so there’s no time wasted unpacking! Fortunately we do have our optics, tapes and literature so birding won’t be thwarted, just cleanliness. Still, who needs a change of underwear when there’s a forest full of new birds to be tracked down? We’re asleep in seconds.

Saturday 19th April

At first light we’re winding our way back up the Caribbean Slope to Braulio Carrillo. Thankfully the low cloud has dispersed and we admire the vast tracts of pristine montane forest under a clear blue sky. Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo protects 46,000 hectares of lower to middle elevation Caribbean Slope forest and sports a phenomenal bird list. Our itinerary includes a visit to the site both at the start and end of the trip, in the hope of finding a number of sought-after species whose distribution stretches no further than Honduras to the north and Panama to the south.

Luckily for us we have quite an amount of up-to-date information as birding friend Fred Fearn has followed our proposed footsteps just a month before. We follow his directions and park up at the run-down Reserva Ecotouristica El Tapir, a kilometre-or-so before the Braulio Carrillo Lower Ranger Station. Not a tapir to be seen, but virtually the first bird sighted in the garden flowers is a stunning male Snowcap!

This unmistakable, tiny hummingbird, with deep wine-purple body and contrasting shining white crown is restricted to a narrow strip of the Central American Caribbean Slope. It is probably the most sought-after hummingbird species in Costa Rica and we can’t believe the fact that it is our first tick of the trip. We owe you one, Fred!

We spend the next hour scanning the wispy purple flowers that line the Reserva’s driveway and see a fantastic array of hummingbirds that are clearly drawn to the nectar-laden blooms. Violet-headed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail and Black-bellied Hummingbird all take their turn to feed.

Well satisfied with our first taste of Costa Rican birding we drive on to the Parque’s Lower Ranger Station, located at a height of approximately 700 metres. The only fault of Braulio Carrillo is the lack of accessible trails into the forest. The Lower Ranger Station is the entry point to one of the few trails, a loop of around two kilometres known as Sendero Natural Las Palmas. We pay a nominal fee and enter the fantastic moist, epiphyte-laden forest on well-maintained gravel and timber trails.

A common misconception amongst those who have never been birding in a tropical forest is that they are full of birds. This is most certainly not the case. One can sometimes walk for hours without seeing a thing and it can be terribly frustrating to say the least. Well, the forest at Braulio Carrillo is nothing at all like that; it is teeming with birds! We are amazed at the numbers and diversity of species we encounter as we walk the trail. Emerald, Dusky-faced and White-throated Shrike-Tanagers. Broad-billed Motmot, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Chestnut-backed Antbird. The list goes on and on as we spend the next six hours traversing the loop. A Mantled Howler Monkey in full cry takes some tracking down in the treetops, but the Red-tailed Squirrels are much more obliging. This really is forest birding at its adrenaline-powered best!

The afternoon heat inevitably causes a dramatic decrease in bird activity and we decide to descend to the lowland secondary growth areas to end the day. Cattle-ranching pasture and banana plantations dominate the scene flanking the Puerto Limon road but, as is often the case, many species have made this habitat their home. Numerous noisy Montezuma Oropendolas nest in isolated, tall remnant trees. Gray-capped and White-ringed Flycatchers hunt from roadside telephone wires and a Long-tailed Tyrant chases insects from its treetop vantage point.

We celebrate the end of a superb inaugural day in Costa Rica with a cold beer, a fine steak, and plan our assault for the following morning.

Sunday 20th April

After negotiating a Pauraque with two tiny young, who refuse to leave the hotel driveway, we head back into Braulio Carrillo in search of some of the higher elevation trails. Our information proves to be less than precise, though the growth of vegetation is so prolific in this region that landmarks soon become obscured. Eventually we locate a trail close to the tunnelled section of highway and set off through the dense vegetation, still soaked from the previous evening’s downpour. The trail is steep and very slippery, but the birding is excellent.

First to appear are a pair of dazzling Golden-crowned Chlorophonias, whose plumage is an outrageous combination of lime green, yellow and turquoise. Striped Foliage-Gleaner, Sooty-faced Finch, Spotted Barbtail and a particularly obliging Black Guan all quickly follow, in an incredibly green and lush cloud forest setting. We have only ascended a few hundred metres from yesterday’s venue, yet the character of the forest is totally different with clouds rolling in and out of the trees and a thick covering of rain-soaked lichen dripping water from every woody limb.

The success of our first couple of hours inspires us to try our luck lower in the Parque, along the notorious Ridge Trail. Numerous trip reports cite instances of car theft and muggings at this site, though interestingly all seem to relate to unspecified third parties. The presence of numerous police cars amongst the lines of slow-moving traffic bolsters our confidence and we stride out along the muddy trail. There is a surprising increase in temperature corresponding to the decrease in elevation and before long we are all sweaty, muddy and mosquito-covered. We are also virtually bird-less, so call it quits, with just an inquisitive treetop troop of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys to show for our troubles. We do, however, still have our passports and an intact hire car!

Tired of bird-free forest watching we stop for a return visit to yesterday’s hummingbird bushes and are instantly rewarded with a male Black-crested Coquette. This little dazzler combines bumblebee proportions with a wispy black crest and gorget surround. Red-footed Plumleteer completes the hummingbird quota for the site as we set off for the Caribbean Lowlands, vowing to return to the superb Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo at the end of our trip.

A fast, straight road carries us west through more deforested lowland areas, now under palm groves and pasture. Passing the entrance to La Selva Biological Station, to be our home for the next few days, we travel on to El Gavilan Lodge located just a short distance beyond. Whilst travelling down the rough entrance track a large male Mantled Howler Monkey, low in a riverside tree, catches our attention. We stop for a photo-call and can’t believe our luck when a Great Potoo glides right over our heads in broad daylight. The amazing harrier-sized nightbird proceeds to land and adopt its dead branch-mimicking roost posture in a nearby tree, much to the displeasure of the local bird population who descend to mob the invader relentlessly.

El Gavilan Lodge itself is far less inspiring. We are charged a hefty fee to enter the tiny area of riverine forest protected by this up-market ecotourism enterprise and see very little. Time to get to the real site, we decide.

A short ride down the dusty access track leads us to the sprawling clearing in the secondary forest beside the Rio Puerto Viejo in which sits the La Selva Biological Station. The light is fading fast, but we still manage to see Black-chinned Jacamar, Slaty-tailed Trogon and Fasciated Antshrike along the entrance road. Things are looking up. The gatehouse guard is expecting us and hands us a key to our pre-booked dormitory. It’s a fine timber building on the periphery of the extensive compound, spotlessly clean and with a large cooling fan. Lunch is served in an adjacent canteen where we find that we are sharing the station with a group of particularly nubile American ecology students, intent on gaining PhD’s and a nice suntan.

La Selva Biological Station protects 1600 hectares of primary lowland Caribbean slope forest, at an altitude of just sixty metres above sea level. The station is actually run by the Organisation for Tropical Studies with the purpose of promoting education and research into tropical rainforest habits. Although accommodation is relatively expensive, profits are contributing to a very worthy cause, besides which a stay at La Selva allows unlimited access to a virtually unique tract of lowland forest.

Monday 21st April

With a distinct air of anticipation we are up at first light and exploring the compound. After a brief search of the open area to the north of the Rio Puerto Viejo, which contains the accommodation, restaurant and administration blocks, we cross the suspension bridge to the research facility buildings where we encounter a particularly endearing group of White-nosed Coatis feeding in a fruiting tree. Closely related to racoons, these agile omnivores are equally at home on the forest floor or high in the canopy. Covered in short brown fur, they have a distinctive white muzzle and long, banded tail, invariably held vertically or arched over the back.

La Selva has a superb system of well-maintained trails and we are soon wandering between the buttress roots the giant forest trees. The lowland Caribbean Slope forest is subtly different from that which we explored at Braulio Carrillo, with a much less luxuriant understory and distinctly dryer feel. It is much hotter, as the day begins to warm, and most noticeably of all there are far fewer birds!

‘Large-billed things’ are much in evidence, however, with a number of Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, along with Collared Aricaris drawing attention to themselves by raucous calls. A Hoffman’s Antthrush is more subtle and some taped coaxing is needed before this forest-floor skulker appears in a viewable spot amongst the leaves. Bullet Ants are particularly large and aggressive beasts with a ferocious sting that should be avoided at all costs and we bear this in mind when kneeling down and straining to view; presumably a bite from these monsters can be likened to a gunshot wound?!

A pair of Great Tinamous has to be forcibly removed from the track, while a particularly nervous Green Ibis instantly departs from a winding forest stream with its shrill calls echoing through the trees. We marvel at the never-ending columns of leafcutter ants moving huge quantities of neatly trimmed, fingernail sized leaf fragments from the treetops to their underground nests where they cultivate fungus to sustain the colony. The millions of tiny footsteps create clearly visible ant motorways that wind their way across the forest floor.

Non-bird star of the morning is certainly the Strawberry Dart-poison Frog. Not uncommon in the leaf litter, these stunning little inch-long amphibians have a strawberry-red body, with bright blue back legs and bum. So named due to the deadly toxins contained in their skin and used by natives as blow dart poison, these creatures are not to be tampered with.

Returning to the compound we are delighted to find that our bags have finally caught us up. The pleasure of a change of shirt and underwear after three days in these humid climbs is immeasurable, and no doubt as much for our fellow diners as ourselves! Furthermore, a Blue-chested Hummingbird is feeding beside the canteen; cause for a double celebration.

Lunch and a brief siesta are followed by an even hotter and more sweaty afternoon on the trails. A Bright-rumped Atilla sings beside the track and a number of Purple-throated Fruitcrows move through the canopy with the noisy flocks of oropendolas. Dazzling White-collared Manakins are not uncommon and their snapping lek calls attract attention. At one point a huge pair of Great Currasows crosses the track right next to us, the black and white male sporting bulbous yellow bill-knob and bizarre curly hair-do.

With a cold shower and colder drink in mind we make our way back across the suspension bridge, weary and with sweat-sodden shirts. It’s amazing how some of the best birds turn up at the most unexpected moments. A casual glance at the river below leads to sudden shouts of excitement as a Sungrebe swims into view just yards from the bridge.

This rather odd species is one of the big targets of this site and is a bird that has eluded us on a number of previous trips to the Neotropics. Like a cross between a grebe and a cormorant, with humbug-striped head and neck, it swims between the waterside logs and tangles, delicately picking morsels from the wood. The water is clear and we watch its black-and-white striped feet paddling franticly as it rides the strong current. What an excellent conclusion to the day.

A return visit to the suspension bridge in the evening produces fly-pasts of Short-tailed Nighthawk, plus stunning views of a torch-lit Boat-billed Heron and a riverbank-hauled Spectacled Caiman. A session playing nightbird tapes draws a total blank, however and we have to pacify ourselves with the moths gathered around a researcher’s actinic light.

Tuesday 22nd April

A determined search around the compound area and access track fails to produce the hoped-for Snowy Cotinga, and Olive-throated Parakeet is small recompense. We grit our teeth and head off to the trails in the hope of some of the goodies that the forest seems reluctant to give up.

Apparently the typically difficult forest birding has been made even more trying this year by the effects of El Nino and the resultant dry period. While birds may be thin on the ground, some of the other spectacles amongst the giant trees, looping lianas, sprouting epiphytes and crunching leaf litter are truly wondrous.

Ants swarm everywhere and vary in size from minute brown sugar ants to the fearful _ inch Bullets. Reptiles, too, are much in evidence. At one end of the scale are the huge Green Iguanas who haul themselves to the treetops to bask in the early morning sunlight and raise body temperatures before feeding. At the opposite end are the tiny anoles, which leap from twig to twig before displaying a vivid yellow or red extendable ‘throat flag’. In between these extremes are found all manner of weird and wonderful creatures, including the basilisks or ‘Jesus Christ Lizards’ which, when alarmed, will happily take to their hind legs and literally run on water.

Finding a previously unexplored trail we leave our usual route. A few metres further and we come across a large swarm of army ants carpeting the leaf litter. "So there’re the ants, where are the antbirds?" This is a genuine quote. About two seconds later some movement right beside the trail catches an eye and we are face to face with a pair of Ocellated Antbirds. Surely one of the most stunning members of this family, they display a large royal-blue patch of bare skin around the eye and a fantastically intricate pattern of scalloped feathering in jet black and rich rufous tones.

Miraculously they appear oblivious to our presence as they hunt insects fleeing the swarming mass of army ants. Sitting on exposed perches just above floor level they remain almost motionless for long periods, just a head turning in search of prey. When a scorpion attempts to climb above the ant swarm it is instantly seized and dispatched with a heavy bill, before being carefully dissected and consumed. Certainly one of the birding highlights of the trip, all is recorded in vivid Technicolor on MK’s video camera.

On a bit of a roll we see a pair of Slaty Antshrikes, a White-whiskered Puffbird and our first Bronzy Hermit in the ensuing minutes. We glimpse a Tayra, a huge dark brown, bushy-tailed mustelid, bounding across the trail and our friend the Sungrebe again greets us as we cross the suspension bridge.

After lunch a further futile Snowy Cotinga vigil is played out, with the only fruit of our labours being a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth ‘rapidly’ descending from the canopy in the face of a descending tropical downpour. The torrential rain keeps us indoors until dark and we only emerge to make a dash for the canteen.

By pure chance we are directed to one of the resident lecturers, a very friendly Costa Rican academic named Mahmood, who is apparently quite an authority on native reptiles and amphibians. It transpires that he is not just a bit of an authority, he is the Costa Rican herpetologist (frogman!) and at the forefront of research into snake anti-venom. He’s a fascinating fellow to talk to and what is more, we are invited to join him on his transect survey to be conducted later that evening.

We rendezvous at the allotted hour and are joined by ‘Birdquest’ leader Paul Coopmans, who has just arrived at La Selva with a tour group (thankfully confined to camp this evening!). Mahmood leads up by torchlight through the dripping forest, now alive with the sounds of a totally different set of insects and amphibians.

As we start the survey transect we are amazed to find that Mahmood can identify the various frog species by their ‘croaks’! He logs the details and his keen eyesight also pinpoints animals close to the trail. One of the first to be spotted is a totally stunning Red-eyed Leaf Frog, typically perched on a leaf, right beside the trail. It is an incredible creature, with huge, black-pupiled red eyes and a yellow-spotted, lime-green body. Its flanks are striped blue-and-yellow and its belly, legs and large toe-suction-pads bright orange. Frog of the trip! (Well thus far, anyway).

Nearby a Masked Tree Frog displays a more subtle combination and olives and browns, and at forest floor level a huge, terrestrial Smoki Jungle Frog sits close to where it has laid its foam-protected eggs in a hollow log. Mahmood explains how this is done in anticipation of heavy rains, after which this area of the forest floor will become a pond in which the tadpoles can develop.

The evening’s finale is the discovery of a Fer-de-Lance, thankfully beyond striking distance, hunting in the leaf litter. Described in our field guide as ‘one of the most feared animals in Latin America’, this deadly snake is responsible for hundreds of deaths every year and its bite is fatal if not treated with anti-venom within a couple of hours of attack. Distinctively marked with a pale yellowish face and underparts and a row of ‘A’ markings along its flanks, the sixty centimetre long snake soon makes an exit into the night.

It’s been an unforgettable experience and we feel privileged to have been able to share in the incredible depth of knowledge of this remarkable man.

Wednesday 23rd April

Our time during the previous evening with Mr Coopmans had, naturally, included a fair amount of interrogation regarding sites and target bird species. Paul has provided us with a site for the very localised Nicaraguan Seedfinch, so after the now-traditional fruitless check of the ‘cotinga trees’ we make our way to the allotted spot on the access road, Seedfinch tape in hand. Before we can coax anything from the marsh, our borrowed two-way radio informs us that the Birdquest party is watching a Snowy Cotinga! A few minutes later we are at the spot, gasping for breath, only to be told that it’s flown off. Bloody typical.

Fortunately a return visit to the marsh comes up trumps and we are soon watching a Nicaraguan Seedfinch, with its oversized pink bill, singing from the top of a bush. Olive-crowned Yellowthroat is a further bonus but the cotinga still hurts rather badly.

A couple of hours around the trails produces nothing of particular note and the previous days rain seems to have whipped the local mosquitoes into a feeding frenzy. We decide that it’s time to call it quits at La Selva and get an early start on our long drive west. Well that’s what we decide, but the car has other ideas. The first puncture of the trip has to be cured first, and sets back our departure somewhat, causing our early afternoon car packing operations to be accompanied by another torrential downpour.

The rain follows us up and over the continental divide via Braulio Carrillo and this combined with some very heavy traffic make for a particularly tedious drive back to San Jose. This is followed by a further traumatic trip through the most user-unfriendly traffic system imaginable, before we emerge onto the Pan American Highway to the north west of the city.

One could be excused for thinking that the Pan American Highway, the main route running down the spine of the continent, would be a huge, multi-laned motorway. Well at least a dual carriageway? In fact it is none of the above and soon we are traversing a single-lane road which winds its way sharply though the hills. Massive articulated trucks often take progress down to a snails pace and we realise that the day’s itinerary is falling greatly behind schedule.

Our destination for the evening is Monteverde, or the village of Santa Elena to be precise. Monteverde is the name given to the Quaker community that was founded in the area in 1951 by a group of forty-four original settlers from the USA. They bought large tracts of land in the fantastically scenic hills and set up dairy farming and cheese production businesses, which are still at the centre of the community today. They also protected large areas of the region’s rich cloud forest, which is where our interest lies.

The road from the Pan American Highway to Santa Elena is notoriously bad, being unpaved for its whole thirty-two kilometre length. Apparently the Quakers have dismissed efforts to construct a new road, as it will have a detrimental effect on the area, making it more accessible to tourism. All our literature makes reference to the horrors of journey, one specifically quoting ‘Do not undertake this journey at night’. The problem is that an overnight stop at lower altitudes will mean that we miss a pre-arranged meeting and also a morning’s birding in an excellent area.

We take a deep breath and set off into the night. It’s bumpy and dusty, but we can’t believe what all the fuss is about. Surely it must get much worse? We continue and although steep at times the road is perfectly navigable in our trusty two-wheel drive Toyota. Excellent progress is made with the only interruptions being an Olingo which sprints across the road and a pair of Pacific Screech-Owls which remain firmly rooted to a low branch right above the road, despite our torch-lit approach. In around an hour and a half we have reached Santa Elena and located our chosen hotel.

The Pension Manakin could be described as basic, but it is also excellent value for money and run by the friendliest proprietors you could wish to meet. We are welcomed with cheese on toast washed down with a beer and manage to make the necessary arrangements with our guide for tomorrow’s big excursion.

Thursday 24th April

At first light we bump the short distance down one of Santa Elena’s dirt roads to Finca Ecologica, a small privately run nature reserve high on the Pacific Slope. The reserve protects an area of rather dry forest, much of which appears to be secondary growth, but it holds a number of speciality birds hard to find elsewhere.

Smartly marked White-eared Ground Sparrows scrape through the leaf litter at the edge of the car park and we’ve only walked a matter of metres into the forest when we hear, then see, our first Long-tailed Manakins. Gaudy males, black bodied with bright blue mantles, red crowns and gracefully elongated tail streamers squeak, crack and jump from twig to twig in a lekking frenzy. Further exploration produces Plain Wren, Steely-vented and Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Mountain Elaenia and a very handsome male Orange-bellied Trogon.

Next destination is the ‘Hummingbird Gallery’, close to the entrance to Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve. A dozen-or-so hummingbird feeders hang around a veranda, all full of sugar solution and with thirty or forty hummingbirds battling for the best spots. It’s quite a spectacle but it’s all very commercialised, with a stream of American tourists loudly offering exclamations of pleasure.

It may not be an idyllic forest setting but it is certainly the best way to clean up the hummingbirds of the region in one foul swoop. Green Violetear, Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Magenta-throated Woodstar and the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald all buzz around our ears. But there is only so long that you can bear a stream of over-enthusiastic ‘ecotourists’ and we soon make tracks.

A month-or-so before our arrival Fred Fearn had used the services of a local guide in a very successful search for Bare-necked Umbrellabird, a species almost endemic to Costa Rica, now much reduced in numbers and possibly the target bird of our trip. Though not in the habit of using guides to see birds, there are certainly occasions when inside help is all-but essential and we are more than happy to hire Adrian Mendez Cruz to help us in our quest.

We pick up Adrian, who we have contacted via email from the UK, and proceed in the direction of Santa Elena Reserve. He turns out to be quite a character, speaking excellent English and possessing a great sense of humour. Not only that, we soon discover that he is an exceptional birder with knowledge of local birdcalls second to none.

On route to the reserve we stop at the roadside and walk a short distance into the forest and along an abandoned canopy walkway. The old structure looks rather insecure but we follow Adrian’s instructions and a few seconds later a large metallic green, red and white bird swoops through the low branches with its train of tail-streamers flowing behind. Our lofty vantage point provides eye-level views of a pair of Resplendent Quetzals, by far the largest and most spectacular member of the trogon family and a real Costa Rican speciality. Having soaked up their splendour and also ticking Yellowish Flycatcher we continue our journey, with Adrian having made the very best of first impressions.

The car is abandoned at Santa Elena Reserve and we set out by foot on the long walk down to the San Gerardo Valley. The plan is to walk down to San Gerardo Lodge, where we will stay for the night before making an early morning assault on the Brolleybird.

The rough track descends steeply and we are soon walking through superb cloud forest. Interestingly we have now re-crossed the continental divide and are descending back down the Caribbean Slope, so should encounter a mixture of high elevation and mid-level Caribbean Slope species. Strangely, despite our mid-afternoon journey, the forest seems alive with birds and nothing escapes our razor-sharp guide. Ruddy Treerunner, Ochraceous Wren, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner and Yellow-thighed Finch are rapidly added to the list. Slaty Antwren, White-throated Spadebill and Golden-bellied Flycatcher soon follow.

The haunting chimes of a bellbird must surely be one of the most atmospheric sounds of the Neotropical forests. As we descend further the chimes grow in volume until we finally round a bend to be greeted by a male Three-wattled Bellbird, perching on the exposed, lichen-draped bough of a low tree and in full display. A large bird, rich chestnut brown and with contrasting pure white head and breast, he sports three amazing wattles of dark bare skin dangling from his face. One falls from either side of his gape and one from the base of his upper mandible, drooping oddly over his bill. All stretch, in length, to mid-way down his white breast.

We watch, mesmerised as he opens his bill fully, exposing a cavernous black mouth, then waits for a couple of seconds as if straining to find his voice, before letting out an incredible metallic, ringing call. After calling he flies up a few metres to turn a hundred-and-eighty degrees, then lands on the same perch, fanning his tail. This is, without doubt, one of the highlights of the trip and even better, all is captured forever by MK’s video camera.

The path winds its way lower and we pass through breathtaking scenery of forest-covered hills stretching into the distance. Adrian explains that the noise that seems to be the rumbling of distant thunder is actually the sound of Arenal Volcano erupting! Eventually the volcano comes into view in the most amazing of landscapes, with its huge, perfectly conical form rising from the flat forest floor and its very peak shrouded in a tight blanket of cloud and smoke. It really is an awesome site, being worth the walk for the view alone.

Lower down, the trail cuts through thicker forest and we are treated to another flurry of new birds. Collared Redstart, Spangle-cheeked Tanager and Pale-vented Thrush are all seen before Adrian hears an unfamiliar call. This is a rare event, but we are now much lower on the Caribbean Slope and beyond his specialist area of highland species. After a concerted session of taping and playback we temp a Northern Nightingale-Wren out of the dark undergrowth and amazingly get Adrian a new bird in the process!

We finally reach the San Gerardo Lodge just before dark and are greeted by the screams of about thirty primary school children! We were warned of their presence; a school trip has happened to coincide with our visit. Fortunately the American teachers have an excellent hold on school discipline and soon the children are marching quietly off on a night walk to the forest.

The lodge itself is quite basic. Timber-built, it’s a large two-storey structure and one can only wonder how all the materials were transported down the long, narrow trail from Santa Elena. Though lacking most of the comforts of home it does have running water and a generator provides electricity, and thus lighting, at night. We are served an excellent meal by Robert, the resident chef and birder and even wash it down with a beer that has been specially shipped down for our consumption by quad-bike!

The lodge is in an idyllic location and with silence restored we sit on the veranda and marvel as the sky turns orange in a sunset that highlights the dark cone of Arenal. Heaven.

Friday 25th April

Our bed, of a thin foam mattress on the bare wooden floor, is surprisingly comfortable and we actually find that we have overslept by a good half-hour. This is slightly disturbing, as it is well known that Brolleybirds are most active for only the earliest part of the morning. We march to the lek site at double time, pausing just long enough to tick Song Wren and Tawny-throated Leaftosser.

All is quiet in the area of the lek and spirits fall visibly. At this point Adrian produces his secret weapon; a large plastic water bottle! After a couple of trials and adjustments in the level of water he hits the right pitch and proceeds to blow across the bottle-mouth and produce an imitation of a Bare-necked Umbrellabird’s deep booming call.

A male is soon responding and pulses quicken. A whirr of broad black wings and he flies in to perch on a nearby branch. Seconds later we have a scope on this most amazing of birds. Jet-black and crow-sized he sports a bizarre forward-facing ‘umbrella’ crest and from his chest hangs a huge tomato-red inflatable sack, complete with two black-tipped wattles. Incredible!

We have scarcely finished soaking in and filming the Brolleybird when Adrian has his next offering lined up. A Rufous-breasted Antthrush is calling nearby, but it takes some perseverance before his whistled imitation of its call lures it into view. Amazingly we have only walked a few yards back along the trail when another call attracts our attention and this time recorded playback results in a Black-headed Antthrush walking right across the trail. What a double!

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and Golden-crowned Warbler appear next, before we come across a large swarm of army ants working their way across the forest floor. Almost immediately a pair of Immaculate Antbirds appear, tending the swarm, and after more patient watching a Bicoloured Antbird is found. Amazingly, the latter is a tick for Adrian!

Eye-ringed Flatbill and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush complete an outstanding couple of hours as we make our way back to the lodge. When we return Robert is already preparing breakfast and we tuck into our scrambled eggs, rice, beans and juicy fresh pineapple from a table looking out over the Caribbean lowlands and the mighty Arenal. It’s a perfectly clear morning and the volcano periodically rumbles and shoots plumes of smoke and ash from its peak. Arenal is apparently the second most active volcano in the world at this time, behind a site in Hawaii, and erupts some two hundred times every month.

It is with some reluctance that we leave this most amazing of sites and start the long, hot climb back up the slope. The sun is high in the sky and predictably we see very little on the ascent, though our bellbird is back on his favoured perch and we savour another stunning performance. A giant black longhorn beetle that Adrian captures is used to demonstrate an amazing trick. It’s huge, chomping jaws cut through plant stems, as thick as a pencil, just like they were butter! Nearing the end of our walk we sneak into Santa Elena Reserve and count ourselves as very lucky when we flush a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove from the trail and it lands in a nearby tree.

Adrian is dropped off at his home and we bid him a very fond farewell. He has been a superb guide and companion and we would recommend his services unreservedly to anyone visiting the area; we owe him for a hell of a lot of incredible birds, not least the boy with the big black brolley. Cruz, Adrian Méndez

We make our way back along the ridiculously potholed roads which serve the village of Santa Elana, a strange jumble of hotels, restaurants and tourist ‘tat’ shops which line the dusty roadside. There is, however a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere about the place and a distinctly slow pace of life prevails, certainly when compared with the madness of the Pan American Highway which rushes past a couple of hours below. It’s not hard to see why the Quakers want to retain their dusty road and keep us tourists out!

Clouds are now rolling in from the Pacific to form a late afternoon ‘fog’ that periodically blocks out the amazing views across the forest-covered hillsides, cut by patches of lush green pasture. Our final port of call for the day is a return visit to Finca Ecologica in an attempted to mop up on a few species previously missed. After a little searching we find Rufous-and-White Wren and Grey-headed Chachalaca, but our main goal is more elusive. Word soon gets round that the Brits need to the see ‘The Pigeon’ and soon a small posse of helpful locals are assisting with the search. Finally, after a shout and a run we are enjoying a particularly obliging Chiriqui Quail-Dove and a very handsome bird it is too.

Finca Ecologica run guided ‘night walks’ and we are booked with this-evening’s group. It transpires that we are to share our guide with half a dozen very loud Californians; not ideal when pursuing shy nocturnal mammals! We actually see some rather good stuff in the form of Mexican Porcupine, a large arboreal beast with long prehensile tail and also a very low Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth with a juvenile clinging to her chest. Highlight is a stunning Orange-kneed Tarantula, the size of your hand, sitting outside the entrance to her burrow.

The whoops of delight from our American friends are just about bearable until a Mottled Owl begins to call very close by. We tape it and it homes in on the playback. As we search for the best vantagepoint around a group of trees an American voice hollows "Gee, look at this owl". We dash to the spot but the Mottled Owl has understandably taken offence at the shouts and screams and made a sharp exit. Transatlantic relations reach an all-time low at this point, though we respectably resist strangling anyone. Just!

Owl incident aside, it has been a very interesting couple of hours and we celebrate this, together with the other wonders of a very full day, with a damned good meal in one of the village’s excellent restaurants. Returning to Pension Manakin we find that we are sharing the establishment with a couple of fellow Brit travellers and round the evening off with a very enjoyable session of ‘Yank Bashing’ in the excellent company of Christine and Rob.

Saturday 26th April

Today was always going to be a bit of an anticlimax after the San Gerardo adventure and, having seen the majority of the site’s target species, we have a fairly low-key morning around Monteverde. New birds take the form of Prong-billed Barbet and our first Hoffman’s Woodpecker. Highlight of the morning is a lengthy visit to Stella’s Bakery, where the mouth-watering array of savouries and delicious cakes has to be seen to be believed.

Midday sees us on the way back down the hill and away from Santa Elena, enjoying the wonderful scenery missed during out night-time ascent. We hit a far less busy Pan American Highway and marvel at the pleasure of being back on a paved road. Despite needing to be within striking distance of Parque Nacional Carara by nightfall, we have a couple of spare hours to pull in an additional site en route. We plump for Puntarenas. What a mistake! Puntarenas is described in one book as ‘the Blackpool of Costa Rica’, but we have read that some good birds can be found. It turns out to be a virtually bird-less, run-down, dirty shit-hole!

We soon cut our losses and continue the journey south east, following the coast. It’s just getting dark when we reach our destination, the Cabinas los Crocodillos next to the Rio Tarcoles and conveniently just a kilometre away from the entrance to the Parque Nacional Carara. This salubrious establishment has been strongly recommended to us by Fred Fearn and we happily check in for three nights. We then check out our room and discover that is shares all the adjectives applicable to Puntarenas. It’s a bloody awful place; hot and very dirty. It’s either changed hands in the last month or Fred has no sense of smell! Still, we’ll only be in the room to sleep and it’s very cheap. Thankfully the food in the adjoining restaurant is very good; it’s washed down with a few beers and we’re asleep before we can worry about the state of the room.

Sunday 27th April

Parque Nacional Carara protects 4700 hectares of Costa Rica’s remaining lowland Pacific Slope forest to the south of the Rio Tarcoles. It’s just a two-minute drive from our hovel to the reserve entrance and we are in the car park just after dawn, enjoying the stunning sight of Scarlet Macaws flying low overhead, calling raucously as they leave their mangrove roosts and head into the forest to feed.

A Yellow-naped Parrot performs a similar flypast, before we enter the dark forest trails in search of the site’s specialities. The terrain is flat and there seems to be much less understorey growth in the lowland forest, but there are certainly large numbers of birds, often forming loose feeding flocks. The first of many Dotted-winged Antwrens soon appears, as does a Stub-tailed Spadebill a few minutes later. Riverside Wren is next to fall and we soon find Black-hooded Antshrike to be relatively common.

Golden-crowned Spadebill completes the Costa Rican set for this family and the lekking Orange-collared Manakins are truly dazzling. Snapping and jumping in typical manakin fashion, the males puff out their bright orange throats as they bounce around the lekking arena. Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher are new birds, but pride of place goes to the minuscule American Pygmy Kingfisher which obligingly fishes from Heliconia branches overhanging the river, close to the suspension bridge.

The temperature starts to climb dramatically as midday arrives and we make our way to Tarcoles for a cold one and to check out the possibilities of changing our accommodation. All of the alternatives turn out to be very pricey and resign ourselves to another couple of nights in the slum.

Along the dirt road to the north of the rundown seaside resort of Tarcoles, and right at the mouth of the Rio Tarcoles itself, is the hamlet of Playa Azul. Its shabby wooden houses are set amongst pasture, banana and palm trees. Children play in backyards and slow Latin American music drifts from radios, giving a very laid-back and friendly feel to the neighbourhood. We enjoy a couple of hours searching the adjoining mangroves and are pleased to find Mangrove Warbler, Panama Flycatcher and a very smart Mangrove Black-Hawk which perches obediently on a low palm.

Final site is the Vigilancia Trail back at Carara where we see our first Scarlet-rumped Tanager, the recently split Pacific counterpart of the Caribbean Slope Cherrie’s Tanager. Returning to our lovely room we call in at the bridged crossing of the Rio Tarcoles where huge American Crocodiles are hauled out on the mud and Lesser Nighthawks are hunting overhead. It’s been a very fruitful day.

Monday 28th April

With yesterday’s success, the number of target birds for this site is now quite low. We’re back on Carara’s Headquarters Trail at first light and with the help of a tape are soon watching a brightly coloured male Baird’s Trogon, our biggest remaining goal. A Spectacled Antpitta responds to the tape but is unwilling to hop into the open. Another lap of the circuit produces many good birds including Band-tailed Barbthroat, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Purple-crowned Fairy, Long-billed Gnatwren and Thrushlike Manakin.

A hasty planning meeting is convened and upon checking our gen it becomes apparent that an early departure to the next site is the best option. We have virtually cleaned up on our most wanted species in just two mornings; the fact that we won’t have to spend another night in that bloody festering room also bears some influence on the decision!

Although it contains no pristine forest, or even a reserve of any description, the town of Orotina is possibly one of the best known birding destinations in Costa Rica. We make our way to the town’s central square, consisting of a bandstand-type structure surrounded by large trees that the shade benches below. It is quite a focal point and many local folk, young and old are spending their siesta in the park. They must be used to the sight of strange, binocular-toting whiteys wandering around gazing into the treetops and some even join us in our quest.

Finally, after what seems like an age, MK shouts us over to his section of the square. We peer through his scope at a stunning pair of Black-and–white Owls, surely one of the most impressive owl species in the world. Two pairs of cold black eyes return our daze, set in dark faces that attenuate speckled white eyebrows and bright yellow-orange bills. The black facemask is sharply cut off at the boldly barred black-and-white breast and a pair of powerful yellow-orange talons grips the branch. Certainly another ‘bird of the trip’, seen in probably its only reliable stakeout in the world. We depart pondering how many hundreds, or even thousands of people must have ticked Black-and-white Owl in Orotina Town Square.

The remainder of the day is spent in transit. Upon reaching San Jose we not only have to navigate through the city but also track down an ATM which accepts our bank cards and dishes out a wad of Colones. From San Jose it’s another long drive south east and up into the mountains, along more twisting, cloud-fogged roads.

It’s a great relief when the bright, welcoming lights of La Georgina emerge from the gloom and we know that the night’s travelling is over. La Georgina is the high altitude restaurant-come-truckstop made famous in numerous trip reports as the place to stay for an assault on the area’s high altitude specialities. The altitude is 3100 metres and there is a distinct nip in the air. The extremely friendly proprietor shows us to a spotlessly clean cabin, which resembles The Hilton when compared with our previous night’s accommodation.

The first thing we do is play a burst of Dusky Nightjar tape and the excitement mounts when we get an instant response. Following the source of the call we cross the road and find that our quarry is calling from the top of a low tree-stump. It’s incredibly atmospheric to watch this near-endemic, high altitude nightjar by torchlight as sheets of cloud pass through the beam. We’re warming to La Georgina already!

Tuesday 29th April

La Georgina is situated in the Cerro de la Meurte range, whose English translation is Mountain of Death. Fortunately it was so-named in historic times, when the journey over the range was notoriously treacherous; nowadays all seems very civilised and perfectly safe, with the most likely cause of fatality being an overdose on La Georgina’s amazing home made banana cake!

We pop our heads out of the cabin door to find a neatly tended garden backed by a small grassy field. Directly behind the field begins a huge swathe of fantastic cloud forest. Sooty and Mountain Thrushes are common garden birds here, as is the very smart Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. A Large-footed Finch uses its size-twelves to scrape in the leaflitter below the hedge and a Slaty Flowerpiercer tends the flowers that edge the veranda. Taking a short walk towards the restaurant we find a pair of the highly localised Volcano Juncos feeding on the tarmac and then marvel at the variety of moths clinging to the wall around the night-lights.
It really is non-stop action. Our heads are spinning at the sudden injection of new birds and we haven’t even set foot inside the forest yet! The passerines are brilliant, but the real stars are the hummingbirds; the forms and numbers of the birds that buzz La Georgina’s feeders are just mind-blowing.

At one end of the scale is the ‘hefty’ Magnificent Hummingbird, at the other the minuscule Volcano Hummingbird. Purple-throated Mountain-gems and Green Violetears abound, but the star of the show is the Fiery-throated Hummingbird with its wonderfully subtle blend of metallic greens, blues, reds and yellows. By simply placing a finger next to a feeder one can be supporting a feeding hummmer in a matter of seconds. What a place!

We descend onto a trail below La Georgina and into forest hung with more mosses and epiphytes than any we have yet seen. Almost instantly a small feeding flock appears and includes such goodies as Black-capped Flycatcher, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black-cheeked Warbler and Timberline Wren, all high altitude specialities, as is nearly every bird present. Flame-throated Warbler, a member of the parula family, is as dazzling as its name suggests with slate-blue upperparts, black mantle and a burning orange throat.

As we wind our way down the steep trail we are very surprised to find that the stunning canary-yellow and deep blue Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher is relatively common. Lower down, the bamboo thickets begin to thicken; this is the favoured habitat of one of the areas most sought-after species. A high, thin call attracts our attention and we play our tape. The bird responds and upon sticking our heads into the bamboo thicket we come face to face with a Zeledonia! This strange, skulking species is now known to be an aberrant warbler, after some previous debate about its taxonomic affinities. Whatever it is related to it’s a damned smart bird, rounded and short-tailed, its dark body contrasts with a bright ginger crown, raised in display.

Yellow-bellied Siskin, Yellow-winged Vireo and a basking Highland Alligator Lizard enliven the long trudge back up the hill. Returning to our cabin we can’t believe our luck when first a pair of Resplendent Quetzals and then a Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher appears in the trees below the veranda. The latter species comes in the form of a wonderful jet-black and lime-yellow male and caps what has been probably the most enjoyable morning’s birding of the whole trip.

We celebrate with fresh coffee and banana cake at La Georgina where the hummingbird feeders, hanging just inches from the windows, provide outrageous views of the local hummers which sip nectar right next to one’s nose! As we eat, the clouds roll in and a torrential rainstorm commences. A good time to make tracks, we decide, and set off south east towards the Pacific Lowlands.

The road rapidly descends from the highlands and is soon winding its way through huge cultivated expanses of pineapple and sugar cane that carpet the relatively level plains. Branching in a more northerly direction we join the San Vito road and a scenic landscape of undulating, largely deforested hills flank the winding road. Around the numerous small hamlets bedraggled schoolchildren are strung out along the road, the lucky ones sporting tatty umbrellas; it’s scarcely stopped pouring with rain all day.

Reaching the small town of San Vito we proceed straight to the ‘Yellowthroat Fields’ but, predictably, little stirs in the heavy rain. Beyond the town’s airfield a determined half-hour of brolley-shielded birding produces Thick-billed, Ruddy-breasted and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters, plus our first Red-crowned Woodpecker.

As dusk descends we set off south towards Golfito, but what appears a short hop on the map turns into a rather gruelling drive on the dark, busy roads and it’s mid-evening before we find a hotel for the night. The Hotel El Gran Ceibo is run by a loud, bullshitting expat Yank who carries an orphaned Scarlet-rumped Tanager with him wherever he goes. All very odd, but any port in a storm as they say.

Wednesday 30th April

Golfito is essentially a resort town, with steep forested hills rising rapidly as one travels inland from the Pacific seafront. Our gen has highlighted a road that runs behind the town’s football pitch and up to a microwave station as the best means of access to some good habitat. It is indeed an excellent patch of Pacific Slope forest and our walk along the tarmaced surface produces a good tally of target species. Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-bellied Wren, the very smart Golden-crowned Woodpecker, Beryl-crowned Hummingbird and Blue-throated Goldentail are all new birds.

The localised Fiery-billed Aracaris takes a little more finding, but the definite stars of the morning are two large troops of Central American Squirrel Monkeys. Up to forty individuals feed amongst the canopy, which is actually at eye level on the steep slopes and allows close observation of these tremendously endearing little creatures. Small ginger-brown monkeys with white faces and contrasting black caps and muzzles, they work their way from tree to tree with dextrous little hands peeling fruit and unfurling leaves to search for food. Thought now to be confined to a small area of south east Costa Rica and extinct in their former Panamanian range, habitat destruction and formerly trapping have reduced numbers to an estimated three thousand individuals. A very sobering thought.

Having descended back down to our hotel we are watching the Spectacled Caimen and Common Basilisks that bask beside the marshy area adjacent to our room, when a very interesting call begins to emanate from the reeds. The cassette recorder is rapidly deployed with an appropriate tape and at least three birds respond, one being extremely close by. We persist and soon a White-throated Crake is walking in the open just five metres from our vantagepoint. It’s a little stunner, ten times better than the illustration in the fieldguide, with finely barred underparts and a brown back showing fine white scaling very reminiscent of a Baillon’s Crake. A real bonus-bird, and certainly worth the pain of enduring the loud-mouthed American proprietor for an hour!

The morning is concluded with a search around the mangrove area at the east end of the town, an exercise that is relatively unproductive but does add a fine King Vulture to the trip list. The drive to San Vito seems a doddle in the daylight and soon we are back at the ‘Yellowthroat Fields’. It’s the middle of a hot afternoon, bird activity is low and we don’t really fancy our chances, but we spread out along the damp, grassy valley and scan the pasture. Suddenly a distant shout causes a panic and a minute-or-so later we are gasping for breath whilst watching a bright male Chiriqui Yellowthroat sing from an isolated bush. Recently split from Masked Yellowthroat and distinguished by virtue of its black ‘Lone Ranger’ mask reaching up onto its forehead, this bird has a minute range and is a great addition to the list.

We are still celebrating when a flock of Red-fronted Parakeets fly past and minutes later we witness the magical sight of a Swallow-tailed Kite swooping down and plucking a lizard from a treetop right beside our vantage point. It then proceeds to circle above our heads whilst devouring the unfortunate reptile on the wing. What an amazing thirty minutes!

The last couple of hours are spent on a forest trail opposite Wilson Botanical Gardens, though things are relatively quiet on the bird front with the highlights being Collared Trogon, Rufous-breasted Wren and Speckled Tanager. As we drive back to San Vito an incredible fire-red, mackerel-skied sunset glows above a sprawling vista of hillsides dotted with sparkling lights of the many villages that populate the region. The day is rounded off with a fine meal at the excellent Hotel El Ceibo, where our evening log call reveals an ever-decreasing list of target species.

Thursday 1st May

At first light we blag our way past the security guard and into Wilson Botanical Gardens to explore the neatly manicured terraces and lowland forest beyond. It’s all very scenic but we find the birding rather hard work and new birds seem hard to come by. Grey-headed Tanager, Tropical Parula, Spotted-crowned Euphonia, Garden Emerald and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird are all new to the trip but pride of place goes to the pair of intricately marked Marbled Wood-Quails which feed close to the trail.

By late morning we’re on the road, heading back towards Cerro de la Meurto and the refreshing coolness of the highlands. A fair chunk of the afternoon is spent in and around the wonderful cloud forest that surrounds La Georgina, and we are inevitably drawn inside the restaurant for another taste of the incomparable combination of banana cake and the hummingbird gallery.

Our gen suggests that the best location to mop-up on our remaining high altitude targets is San Gerardo de Dota (not to be confused with the valley of the same name close to Santa Elena!), so we locate the appropriate turning and commence the steep descent down the unpaved road. As the track twists down the steep gradient we enjoy some of the finest scenery of the trip, with breathtaking views across the steep, densely forested hillsides.

The valley is obviously rather an exclusive ecotourism destination, with prices to match, but eventually we find somewhere half-reasonable in the form of the Cabinas el Quetzal that even provides us with a garden tick, as a Gray-tailed Mountain-gem hovers in the fading light.

Friday 2nd May

Early morning finds us following Jon Hornbuckle’s notes and bouncing our way up a very rough track running steeply uphill behind the luxurious Savegre Lodge. After a few hundred metres our car decides that it cannot cope with the slippery surface and we abandon it to continue on foot. This is a damned good move as one of the first birds we see is a very smart Black-thighed Grosbeak.

As we climb the hillside the views across the valley are superb, with banks of cloud rolling in and out to obscure the forested slopes and blocks of lush green pasture. Soon the trail narrows and enters pristine oak forest whose huge trees are hung with garlands of lichen. The local race of Acorn Woodpecker is a common sight, while Yellow-winged Vireo and Black-faced Solitaire also seem abundant. The distinctive call of Silvery-throated Jay causes a rush down the hillside, but views are frustratingly brief. Apparently this species is now breeding and adult birds are rather secretive.

Speculative playing of Silvery-fronted Tapaculo calls finally prompts a response but this incredibly skulking species proceeds to lead us on another frustrating game of hide-and-seek and we have to be satisfied with piecing together the typical 'bird jigsaw’ of an elusive terrestrial species. ‘Silvery’ things are abandoned in disgust and we enjoy much more obliging species such as Ochraceous Wren and Alston’s Singing Mouse, a distinctive dark diurnal rodent, on our scenic descent.

Back down at the Savegre Lodge we savour the visitors to the hummingbird feeders and note how the relatively small reduction in elevation from La Georgina has led to a change in attendant species. Handsome white-throated male Gray-tailed Mountain-gems and tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds are the predominant species at this altitude.

A couple of spare hours are taken up with a final visit to La Georgina, partly for the birds and partly for the banana cake. Refuelled and refreshed we set off west on the final leg of the trip. As is often the case, we have completed our proposed circuit in less time than we had allowed and are left with the luxury of a couple of ‘spare’ days. This gives us bonus time in the Braulio Carrillo area, where a number of target species are still up for grabs.
We now have navigating off to a tee and even manage to find San Jose’s only ‘bypass’ that speeds us round the north eastern portion of the city. Following our noses we arrive back at the familiar Lomas del Toro Hotel, on the outskirts of Guapiles, where we had spent our first night. Now experts at hotel haggling we wangle a deal for the last three nights that leaves up paying less than £2 each per night. And the steak in the hotel restaurant is just as good as it was the first time round!

Saturday 3rd May

Assuming that it couldn’t be as lifeless as it was on our first visit we commence the day’s birding on the Ridge Trail at Braulio Carrillo. We’re sadly mistaken. After an hour of slipping in the mud we’ve seen absolutely nothing of note, call it quits, and return to the car with just a troop of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys to show for our troubles.

Returning to the Lower Ranger Station we set out on a loop of the now familiar Las Palmas Trail. It’s still only 07.30 hours, and the contrast in bird activity couldn’t be more obvious. Almost immediately we drop onto a feeding flock which contains a number of Black-and-yellow Tanagers that appear reminiscent of large, bright wood warblers as they feed in the canopy. A very impressive Dull-mantled Antbird is, in fact, anything but dull as it moves through the understorey and a pair of Shining Honeycreepers aptly shine in the dappled sunlight. Sharp eyes catch the yellow belly of a metre-long Bird-eating Snake as it devours the contents of an unwisely placed nest, then slithers off into the undergrowth.

We have been playing our Black-crowned Antpitta tape all morning and when a distant response is heard the excitement mounts. For a full hour we play a blast, get a brief reply, then silence, then repeat the procedure as the quarry first approaches then retreats. When a sudden movement catches us all by surprise we instantly realise that the source of the calls is much closer than we suspect; our tape is actually much louder than the low, weak call of the antpitta. Another traumatic few minutes ensue until he is finally located, sitting motionless and calling from a fallen log. All the effort is worthwhile, however, as the Black-crowned Antpitta is one of the most stunningly marked members of its genus. It is a large bird with rich rufous back, a wholly black head and intricate black vermiculations on a white belly. A superb bird, yet another contender for ‘bird of the trip’ and again captured on video to enjoy for all eternity!

Final tick of the loop is a cracking male Yellow-eared Toucanet that appears at eye level where the forest falls steeply away from the trail. This too is a little belter, with jet-black underparts, grass-green back, bright yellow ear coverts and a deep crimson undertail. When a tape is played he performs an amazing display in response, alternately raising head then tail in rhythm to his baying call.

Back at the Ranger Station we hold a celebratory picnic of cheese and salami sandwiches with a dessert of fresh watermelon; we even invite our friend the ranger to join us. A brief session on the El Ceibo Trail, opposite the ranger station, is thwarted by a torrential downpour, though we do see a very smart Bicoloured Antbird tending a huge swarm of army ants.

The evening is spent in the company of a group of Dutch travellers, with beer and tales of our experiences flowing far past a sensible bedtime. It’s almost like being on holiday!

Sunday 4th May

The big day; make or break at La Selva!

Arriving at the familiar setting just after first light we park up and take a stroll back down the entrance road. There is a distinct feeling of déjà vu as we check the familiar trees; this really seems to be prolonging the agony. We have only covered a few yards, however, when a dark ‘antbird’ feeding in low vegetation materialises into a Black-breasted Wren, a regional endemic and a great way to start the morning.

Spreading out a little the treetop scanning continues, though we find that where there were bare branches a couple of weeks ago now leafy canopies exist. When a distant pale bird is picked out on its treetop perch a feeling of disbelief prevails. It can’t be? But it most certainly is! The Holy Grail of the trip has finally given itself up. We are watching a Snowy Cotinga. Great celebrations ensue. It is not the aesthetic splendour that sets this bird apart from the rest; it’s the fact that we’ve had to work our bollocks off to find it!

Within seconds a Yellow-tailed Oriole appears in a tree beside the track and a few minutes after that a Lesser Elaenia a few metres further along. This little saga just goes to illustrate the often-absurd events of a foreign birding trip. The frustration and the elation, the highs and the lows. Two weeks ago we had walked this same road relentlessly and seen nothing, yet now we have acquired four new birds in less than half an hour. Madness!

We bluff our way past the security guard and back into the reserve-proper, probably helped by our lack of understanding of the Spanish language. The access road may have been leaping with birds, but we are soon reminded how hot, dry and lifeless the forest at La Selva can be. A huge green and white Amazon Kingfisher that flies below the suspension bridge and a treetop Black-billed Cuckoo are new to the trip but little else of note is found. Our obliging Sungrebe swims out to bid us farewell and we leave La Selva for what is certain to be the last time.

La Selva Verde Lodge is just a few kilometres from La Selva, but is run on a totally different basis as a large ecotourism venture. It too protects an area of lowland Caribbean slope forest, but sports a much smaller bird list than La Selva and isn’t really worth devoting much time to. One species, however, is reputed to be much more reliable at this site. Sneaking onto the suspension bridge we instantly flush a pair of Sunbitterns from the riverbank and are able to admire their stunning orange and black wingpattern at close quarters. They proceed to fish from the bank right in front of the lodge, allowing every detail of their exquisitely patterned plumage to be studied as they hunt in the shallows.

During the short walk back to the car we see yet another Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth and almost tread on what is surely the non-birding highlight of the trip. In the dry leaf-litter beside the trail is an incredible little frog, bright lime green in colour with clear cut black ‘camouflage’ markings; though it hardly blends in with the surrounding brown leaves! It’s a Green and Black Dart-poison Frog and although it is the largest member of its family it still only reaches thirty-nine millimetres in length. The life cycle of this little creature makes fascinating reading. After mating and the hatching of the eggs in a moist location on the forest floor the male will carry individual tadpoles, on his back, to suitable tiny bodies of water where the tadpoles can develop. Amazingly, such locations are water filled holes in trees or bromeliads and a male will climb as high as thirteen metres to reach such locations before depositing his cargo.

We soon discover that Green and Black Dart-poison Frogs are relatively common in the area and have set up territories which they advertise by call and are willing to vigorously defend. We watch one particular rival pair wrestle for minutes on end, gripping each other and rolling over and over in the leaves as they fight for domination of the chosen spot. It makes enthralling viewing and the resultant video really is like a clip from ‘Life on Earth’.

Next we travel a little further west to a small town called La Virgen, but our gen for this site is rather sketchy and we fail to find the patch of forest or waterfall that is our supposed destination. Good entertainment is to be had at the main river crossing, however, where local lads are diving from the dizzy heights of the road-bridge into the river far below.
Travelling a little further fails to locate our birding site but does reveal that the area that was once lowland forest has now been cleared to make way for agriculture, with banana plantations dominating the landscape for miles around. The last few hours are spent back at La Selva Verde, where highlights are a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and pair of huge Ringed Kingfishers on the river and an impromptu study of the populations of Green and Black, and Strawberry Dart-poison Frogs on the forest floor.

Returning to base we consume ‘the Last Supper’ and make some preparations for our return to civilisation.

Monday 5th May

We choose the Las Palmas Trail at Braulio Carrillo for our final attempt to eke out a bird-or-two in what is the last few hours birding of the trip. The trail is typically alive with birds, but we have one particular species in mind and repeatedly play the requisite tape. Eventually we hear a response, but again it takes a little persistence before our target materialises. A fine male Lattice –tailed Trogon has the accolade of being the last tick of the trip, and very fitting too.

Completing the circuit, the likes of Blue-black Grosbeak and White-throated Shrike-Tanager ensure that we depart with a full notebook but we decide that we can’t leave without a farewell visit to the trip’s very first port of call. We scan the familiar purple flowers at Reserva Ecotouristica El Tapir and before long a stunning little Snowcap appears. It isn’t very often that you can start and end a trip on the same bird, and such a feat couldn’t be performed with a more appropriate bird than a Snowcap.

It’s now just the drudgery of bag packing, a small matter of navigating around San Jose and then convincing Toyota Car Rentals that we haven’t wrecked their vehicle. We have travelled 2036 kilometres and seen 432 bird species, with many North American passerine migrants having already departed and very few wading bird species recorded. We also have 15 mammals and probably most surprisingly 42 species of reptiles and amphibians to our credit. It has been a highly successful trip.

Though very hard work at times, Costa Rica holds some incredibly rich and diverse birding habitat. It also supports an array of insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that at times have to be seen to be believed! Combined with the small size of the country, easy logistics and an infrastructure often geared to encourage ecotourism it really does make the perfect introduction to Neotropical birding. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s long list of species shared with only a few neighbouring counties make it an essential world birding destination in its own right.

After all, where else could you watch a Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a backdrop of an erupting volcano?

Ian Merrill May 2003