Eileen L. Keelan
26 February - 13 March 1994
For all these reasons, we happily anticipated an
The river moved slowly in the shade beneath the dense, overhanging vegetation, barely disturbing the water-lilies floating on its surface. A slender, rail-like bird stepped rapidly from leaf to leaf, stabbing at insects, supporting itself easily on extremely long-toed feet. Its head and neck were black, its body chestnut, and it had a bright yellow bill and frontal shield: our first northern jacana of the trip! We sat in the boat, our binoculars momentarily unnecessary, sipping cold drinks, and marvelling at the great views of such an exciting bird. Already that day we had seen bare-throated tiger-heron, mantled howler monkey, jesus christ lizard (which "skips" across the water's surace), as well as three species of toucan, all from the comfort of a stable, flat-bottomed boat, complete with local guide and a cooler stocked with soft drinks.
We were birding in
After breakfast, we headed down the canal to the Tortuguero River for the first boat trip of our stay--in our two days, we took a total of three half-day boat trips and saw such birds at sungrebe, squirrel cuckoo, semiplumbeous hawk, boat-bolled heron, and green and rufous kingfisher (we saw all the New World kingfishers on this trip). But the most unusual boat trip was one we took at night; the guide spotlighted several species roosting that we would not otherwise have seen: agami heron, American pygmy kingfisher, great potoo, and gray-necked wood rail. In addition to the birds, he also showed us a kinkajou, a short-legged, monkey-like member of the raccoon family. We also went by boat from the lodge to the park headquarters, where we set off on a muddy hiking trail that wound through the hot, humid forest, and went for a short distance along the beach before turning back into the forest for the return part of the loop. We heard the loud roar of a troop of howler monkeys up in the trees and from the beach located a laughing falcon in a distant treetop. Jim brought a slaty antshrike into view by tape recording its call and playing it back to the bird. On the hike we went through a lek of white-collared manakins.
We did some birding on the grounds and trails surrounding the lodge and had nice looks at a lineated woodpecker and argued about which species of forest falcon nearly beheaded us when it swooped low over the trail. After each bout of birding, whether by foot or by boat, we sat around with cold drinks and tallied up the bird lists. Ellen had prepared in advance a 20-page check-list of Costa Rican birds, with one column for each of the days of the trip. This was a big help in tallying up what was seen each day.
We enjoyed the notion that we had nothing to do all day but haul our binoculars around and look for exotic birds and butterflies, orchids and monkeys. This casual attitude extended to the lodge as well. For example, there was this notice in the brochure: " We have never had a problem with theft from the rooms. Therefore, we do not use room keys...If you do accidentally lock a room, tell us and we'll open if for you." Another piece of advice read: "On a few minutes notice, we will be happy to take you across to the beach at no charge. Please leave clear information as to when you want to be picked up so that we know when to keep an eye out for you. When you get back to the river, jump up and down, wave your arms and shout. Be patient and persistent; eventually we'll notice you and come to get you."
Arrangements had gone very smoothly thus far. Brian had done an enormous amount of planning
and organization before we left the
Zoom, we learned, was a word that could not be used, in any connection whatsoever, with the rental car. In what turned out to be a sort of comedy of errors (which certainly wasn't amusing at the time), we spent several hours at the airport trying to untangle the most complicated set of arrangements under which we'd ever tried to rent a vehicle. Still, we eventually drove away in what appeared, at first, to be a normal car.
We were following a heron-like bird along the rocky riverbed, hoping to get a better view. At last, it was out in the open when we flushed it again; it hopped up onto a boulder, then flew low over the ground, displaying the gorgeous concentric pattern on its wings that is visible only in flight. We were thrilled by our first view of a sunbittern, an aptly named life bird that was the primary goal of the hike and that we were to see only one more time on the trip. Even the rain that began after we reached the river could not dampen our enthusiasm now.
Michael Snow, our guide and host for two full days of
birding on the Atlantic slope, in the foothills of the
Michael lived on a small farm, mostly secondary forest in various stages of regrowth. During our stay, he led us on hikes along a network of roads and trails where we found such specialties as bat falcon, white-breasted wood wren, violaceous trogon, red-capped manakin, and the ultimate skulker, black-faced antthrush. We swiftly became familiar with oropendolas that built huge nests in colonies in bare trees and made unusual noises while displaying. We enjoyed the interaction between two chestnut-backed antbirds in the bushes near the house. Late one afternoon, we spotted a slaty-tailed trogon and at night, we heard black and white owl, least pygmy owl, and great tinamous. Among the non-avian species we saw here were the fascinating leaf-cutter ants and some very fancy butterflies, including the incredible blue morpho.
The accomodations here, while not four-star, were certainly adequate. The house had a kitchen where the two members of Michael's staff prepared meals, that, if becoming familiar, were still very good; two bedrooms for guests; and a bathroom shared by residents and guests. The three residents assumed some rather unconventional living arrangements, involving a tent and a bottle of vodka, when guests arrived. Meals were served on the veranda, with a view of orchids growing in the yard, mountains in the distance, and the opportunity to keep an eye out for more birds, such as white-crowned parrots.
Pale-vented pigeon, purple-throated fruitcrow,
plain wren, long-billed gnatwren,
red-throated ant-tanager: these were
some of the species that so delighted us as we birded from the dirt road
between our lodge and the small town of
By the time we had birded our way back to the lodge, it was near dinner time, we were hot and dusty and looking forward to showers. However, the electricity was out, a not unusual occurence, which meant that there was no running water; so, after receiving a recomendation for dinner from our hostess, we went to Cooky's French Restaurant. It was a small, open-air place, where, perhaps not coincidently, our lodge hostess moonlighted as a waitress! Huge banana leaves served as placemats, and through the kitchen we could see Cooky toss vegetable scraps right out the window as he prepared the dishes -- there's nothing like having your compost pile convenient to the kitchen. The delicious meals concluded with chocolate crepes for dessert and we enjoyed the place enough that we returned the next evening.
After more birding along the road next morning (well-refreshed, since the electricity was back on when we returned from dinner, and we were able to enjoy showers) and seeing banded-backed wren, white-collared seedeater, red-legged honeycreeper, and olive-crowned yellowthroat, we drove to Cahuita National Park where we hoped to see a variety of forest species. Here we had our first car troubles, only a portent of things to come.
Once we'd weathered the near-fiasco of merely trying to rent the vehicle (which, by the way, had actually been reserved in advance and paid for in entirety before we even arrived in country, for whatever that's worth, which apparently is nothing) we hadn't experienced any real problems beyond the odd item falling off the car now and then: a couple of door handles, ashtrays, etc. True, the seatbelts in the backseat did not work, but that is to be expected when the buckles and the clips are not of the same type. Probably the worst thing from a birder's point of view, was the fact that the front seat passenger door handle had wasted no time breaking off; the unfortunate birder in the front seat was at the mercy of someone else to let him or her out. At best, this arrangement was inconvenient. At worst, when an unexpected and exciting new bird was spotted, and the occupants exploded out of the car in a frenzy to locate it, there was always one poor trapped birder left behind, beating on the windows as a gentle reminder that someone was falling down on the job. (At one point, Brian forgot that it was his turn to let me out; he trotted off down the road, enthusiastically gesturing back over his shoulder for me to hurry up and join him.)
Anyway, we had driven as far from the entrance station as it was possible to go, and gotten out to scan the Atlantic Ocean from the beach, and were enjoying the waves curling in against the shore. A moment of panic ensued upon getting back into the vehicle and discovering that it would not start. After the time-honored tradition of fiddling around under the hood for a while, it was discovered that there were loose battery connections. The problem was remedied as well as any mechanic could have done by banging on them with a rock and we happily drove away. We should have kept the rock.
At least we were compensated for the interruptions, by seeing an olive-backed euphonia, which required some diligent searching among the foliage, and a crowned wood nymph, a superb purple hummingbird with a green throat. Later in the day, above Bribri, we were pleased to see another wood nymph feeding repeatedly at some bright red heliconias; as well as long-tailed tyrant and, at a river crossing, our second sunbittern.
If you can imagine a number of species of birds occupying
the trees and shrubs in your immediate vicinity, mingling with each other,
calling back and forth, flipping from branch to branch, feeding actively, and,
most importantly, not flying away, then you have a reasonable picture of a
mixed feeding flock. Feeding flocks provide one of the great thrills of birding, almost an embarassment of
riches in the form of birds, and all immediately available for one's viewing
The fun began after leaving Puerto Viejo. We got up early, whacked at the car battery for abouth the eighteenth time, and took a farewell drive along the dirt road to Manzanillo, adding about five new birds, including black-throated wren and tropical gnatcatcher. We were also treated to a dawn chorus of howler monkeys.
Braulio Carrillo was established in 1978 in order to
preserve 109,000 acres of primary forest.
It encompasses an area of rivers, canyons, and waterfalls, boasts dense
vegetation, cool, misty conditions, steep, muddy trails, and some of
This display only whetted our appetites for more exciting possibilities and we set off up the main trail in hopeful search. We were not disappointed: we encountered a second huge feeding flock containing white-throated shrike-tanager, green honeycreeper, white-ruffed mannakin, and emerald and bay tanagers (we found about 10 species of tanagers that afternoon).
John joined us at this point in the trip and we returned
The next day, we headed toward Golfito Refuge in the southwest corner of the country, stopping to look for birds near El Brujo, where we saw roadside hawk and yellow-crowned euphonia, and Punta Mala, where we found gray-headed chachalaca, orange-chinned parakeet, green-breasted mango, and long-billed starthroat. We had the highest day list of the trip and nearly thirty new trip species.
At Golfito, we drove up a road to a microwave station and birded our way back down. As if to balance out the previous day's high list, we saw few new birds today, but we did have a couple of good ones: a black-hooded antshrike, and three white hawks which Brian spotted soaring overhead and which were a favorite bird for everyone. A hoped-for bird, red-throated caracara, failed to put in an appearance. However, we were very pleased to see some white-throated capuchin monkeys foraging actively in the trees, and watched for a while as they hopped up and down on a limb, and broke off branches in a display that indicated they were not as pleased to see us.
Silver-throated tanager, scarlet-thighed
dacnis, green hermit, and violet sabre-wing
were some of the birds we enjoyed seeing at the
The return to
It was dark by the time we arrived at the hotel. Jim and Ellen had rounded up a mechanic who had replaced the belts and welded some vital part back together; the temperature gauge was still over the top but apparently it was now malfunctioning -- we stopped to look under the hood several times, but the engine remained cool. We tried to check one last time in the hotel parking lot, but now the hood release, obviously overworked, gave up the ghost, so we went up to our rooms, secretly hoping that the car would just quietly explode overnight and be done with it.
Over breakfast, a chance remark to our waiter elicited
the information that there was an outlet of National Car Rental in town and we
were able to make arrangements to exchange our old heap for one with different
problems, without the bother of having to go back to
The trail began at a white-sand beach and ran steeply through forest and along rocky promontories from which we were able to spot brown boobies far off shore. A rustling in the trees alerted us to the presence of capuchin monkeys and we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of the rare squirrel monkey. A coatimundi ambled into full view where it remained for several minutes while we had satisfying views; agoutis, long-legged, ungulate-like rodents, whose name refers to their grizzled coloration, also made an appearance.
Given our recent experiences, it probably does not come as much of a surprise to learn that we were faced with a flat tire when we returned to the parking lot. We had to borrow a jack, since the one supplied with the car was not able to raise it high enough to change the tire, but eventually we were once again on our way.
Macaw alert! We had gotten up early and driven to a bridge just north of the reserve in hopes of seeing the spectacular scarlet macaw. Birding from the bridge was outstanding, and by the time we were through, we'd had first-rate views of thirty or so macaws flying past overhead -- these brilliant red, blue, and yellow birds with long, pointed wings and tail are unforgettable. At the bridge, we also saw grison, a large and beatifully patterned gray, black and white weasel.
The hike from the reserve headquarters led past a lek of manakins, which we heard but did not see. Scarlet macaws were perched in the trees here, and a crested guan in the parking lot almost got John arrested. There were several signs along the trail stating "Keep The Reserve Clean"; we were amused to come across one that read "Keep The Cleanlyness". A second trail was even more productive, bird-wise, with Baird's and black-headed trogons, rufous-tailed jacamar, scaly-breasted hummingbird, plain xenops, and king vulture.
We'd had an extremely satisfying morning of birding but something seemed to be missing. Ah, yes -- we needed to have car troubles in order to round out the day. We decided that the fuss of finding a town with a service station that was not too far off our route, and then having to hang around waiting for the flat tire to be repaired and the bent rim fixed and the low spare tire refilled, ought to do the trick. But these decisions are not up to us; once again, the fates intervened with far more mischief than we felt was truly required.
The tire situation was resolved more easily than we'd anticipated and we stopped for lunch afterward at a Chinese place; we ordered dishes from the menu with such English translations as "mixed food with chicken". Thus fortified, we headed for our next destination, the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
The dirt road to Monteverde is
35 km and we'd read estimates in the guide books of from two to four hours to
drive the length of it. At about the six km point, we got out to look at a
beautiful lesser ground cuckoo on the road-bank and discovered that diesel fuel
was leaking from the car at an appalling rate, forming an ever-widening damp
spot in the dirt road. Jim and John
hiked back one km to a public phone and contacted National Car Rental in
Off we went, in a taxi which had no suspension, not that it mattered much since it only traveled about three and half miles per hour. We had to make an emergency stop for gas at a private farm. With relief, we finally checked in at the hotel, where the electricity promptly went out, requiring us to stagger around the grounds in total darkness with all our stuff, trying to locate the cabins we'd been assigned, occasionally losing each other in the confusion. But at least we were somewhere; our sympathies were back down the road with the intrepid, if cold, guardians of the junk heap we'd rented.
Well, they finally made it. A fellow had driven out from
In a departure from the weather of our days so far, this one was damp and cool, even cold. It was dim in the forest where we were hiking; fog shrouded the trees and clung to us as we strained to see up into the canopy, sure that if we only tried hard enough, a resplendent quetzal would slowly take shape out of the twilight mist and reveal itself to us in all its splendor. (Of course, if success at birding depended on the intensity with which one tries, there would be none of those near misses or "jinx birds" every birdwatcher has in his repertoire of birding escapades!) Still, as the afternoon light faded, we kept telling ourselves we'd hike just a few more yards, search just a few more minutes, before turning back. We passed a small group of people and greeted them with the universal birding phrase: "Have you seen anything?" "Well," they answered, with the studied nonchalance of the recently triumphant birder, "there's a pair of quetzals just up the trail."
The male quetzal is a brilliant green bird with a yellow
bill, white tail, and crimson belly.
During the breeding season, it also sports incredibily
long tail streamers; when the bird is perched on a branch in its typical upright
pose, with those streamers trailing down, they are displayed to their best
effect. Thanks to the tip from our
fellow explorers, we were able to enjoy good, if neck-straining, views of a
pair of these birds. The resplendent
quetzal, the national bird of
We spent two days hiking the trails at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. The 26,000 acre-preserve is home to over 2,000 plant species and more than 320 species of birds. In addition to the resplendent quetzal, we had the pleasure of seeing buff-fronted quail dove and hearing many eerie black-faced solitaire songs. We made a couple of visits to the hummingbird feeders set up just outside the entrance to the preserve, and were entertained by the dazzling array of hummers that darted in to feed: green violet-ear, magenta-throated woodstar, coppery-headed emreald, purple-throated mountain gem. When it came to naming hummingbirds, ornithologists pulled out all the stops!
From Monteverde, we also
visited the nearby Bajo del Tigre Trail, where we saw red-billed pigeon, and the Santa
Elena Forest Reserve where lineated foliage-gleaner, spangled-cheeked tanager,
yellow-throated brush-finch, and yellow-thighed finch
were the birds of the moment. Driving
back down the
When we drove the "new" vehicle out on to the paved road from the rough, dirt road to Monteverde, Brian noted that the steering was kind of strange--the response seemed to lag behind the action of steering. He explained that the dirt road was so bad that this steering problem hadn't been obvious until we reached the paved road. Both he and Jim, who shared the driving responsibilities, adjusted well to this oddity. Of course, that behavior had to be unlearned when they got back home.
We had a brief moment of panic that evening when we checked in at the motel; it appeared that something was leaking from the car. However, it turned out to be only the air conditioner dripping, although what it had to drip about no one knows, since it didn't work all that well. Even if it did, the vents inside the car would not stay adjusted; they just flipped straight downward blowing air to the floor. Their position mimicked that of the driver's sideview mirror.
We left early in the morning to visit Palo Verde National Wildlife Refuge, which sometimes has concentrations of waterbirds. We hoped to find double-striped thick-knee and jabiru, an enormous stork, at this location, but were unsucessful; crane hawk was probably the best bird of the morning, but we also added streak-backed oriole and white-lored gnatcatcher to the list.
After lunch we looked for Lago Mata Redondo (the round killing lake), a remote lake that was supposed to be the last to dry up and thus have excellent birding, even now, in the dry season. While still on the paved roads, we did spot a pair of thick-knees. Once on the dirt roads, we had difficulty following the directions in our guide book, and were only confused further when we tried asking some local people. Finally, as dusk approached, one man hopped on his motorcycle and led us to the gate leading to the correct road and left us there with more directions. It took a bit of floundering around some fields, but we managed to end up at the lake, which was almost dry. And there we saw our only jabiru, limpkin, and snail kite, as well as roseate spoonbill and wood storks.
Shortly after getting back on the main road, we discovered what else was wrong with our car. With the gas gauge indicating two thirds full, we ran out of gas. Brian and Jim hitched a ride to a gas station where they filled a former gatorade jug with a gallon of fuel and we drove the remainder of the way to our hotel without incident.
An early start the next morning brought us to
Birding around the grounds of the hotel in Canas was productive. One morning we saw a banded wren building a nest. Behind our room we discovered a black-headed trogon; we also saw a yellow-olive flycatcher and heard kiskadees calling all over the place. Gray-necked wood-rails called at night. A local resident told us that jaguar, ocelot, and puma had been known to occur along the path by the river.
The La Selva Biological Station
is maintained by The Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of
academic institutions from Costa Rica, the United States, and Puerto Rico,
promoting education and research in tropical biology; this protected area is
adjacent to Braulio Carrillo National Park, and
includes more than two thousand species of plants and four hundred species of
birds. We looked forward to our visit
here, and after leaving
One of our intermediate stops was at the Falls of La Virgen del Socorro. Nearby, a dirt side road led down a hill; we parked at the top and let our binoculars lead us to the bottom. Among the new things we had were: crimson-collared and speckled tanagers; red-headed barbet; orange-billed sparrow; and torrent tyrannulet.
We checked in at our hotel that evening and did the bird list over dinner. Strangely enough, there were no new car troubles to report; the vehicle seemed to have reached a state of equilibrium.
Michael, our guide at Vivero Salsipuedes, had given us some recommendations on which trails to take at La Selva, and after a rather tortuous approach to the preserve, due to massive map-failure, and five hours spent filling out paperwork -- it seems they could save about half their rainforest by cutting back on paperwork, alone -- we were finally trotting along the trails, encountering such birds as great tinamou, olive-backed quail dove, rufous motmot, white-fronted nunbird, and rufous mourner.
The entry fee included lunch, so we returned to the headquarters building where the cafeteria is located, for a meal that included the ubiquitous rice and beans. The day was quite warm and we appreciated the opportunity to get cold drinks from the machine near the office. It required tokens, which could be obtained at the window for one hundred colones (approximately seventy cents). The token turned out to be three American dimes, dabbed with paint!
The bird of the day was discovered late in the afternoon, by Brian. We were hiking along near some of the experimental plots, when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A closer look, a call to binoculars, and soon everyone was exclaiming over three great currasows, two males and a female. Later, back at the office, sipping cold drinks, and relaxing to the sound of keel-billed toucans calling from the nearby trees, John spotted two snowy contingas, soon to be joined by a third, in a bare tree behind the building.
The next day, having learned the correct route, we were able to hit the trails early. We hiked all morning and saw black-throated trogon, black-crowned tityra, ornate hawk-eagle, ochre-bellied flycathcer, and slaty-backed forest falcon. Brian finally saw a bay wren, a fairly common bird which had eluded him since the beginning of the trip.
We spent the afternoon attempting a repeat of the feeding
Though it hardly seemed possible, our last birding day of
the trip had arrived and we were heading back toward
Volcan Poas is one of the most active of the country's volcanos and our last stop of the trip. At 9,500 feet of elevation, we no longer had to worry about overheating -- it was actually cold. We hiked two trails, had a bird's-eye view of the volcanic crater, saw a highland tinamou, and added the last new bird of the trip, a slaty flower piercer.
The great theme of this trip has been, of course, birds. But as I reread the account, there seems to be a secondary theme running through it, that of our many and varied vehicular misfortunes. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it did not run -- hence, all the difficulties. Anyway, looking back, one might be tempted to claim that all the uproar only added to the sense of adventure, but one would probably be lying. After all, a foreign birding trip filled with tropical birds, exotic plants, and the company of friends is all that we required to insure a fascinating, adventurous vacation. As for the rent-a-wreck: let it rust.