Over 400 species in 12 days


Story and images by John and Sheelagh Bowman

A summary of their presentation at the Club meeting in May.

Where in the world would you be able to tick off over 400 species in 12 days? Costa Rica. The country is only 4.2% the size of South Africa, but has a bird list of 903, roughly the same number as South Africa.

The reason for this abundance of bird life is the fairly unique make-up of the country. A spine of mountains runs from the North West to the South East of the country. Moist winds blow in from the Caribbean, while drier breezes come in from the Pacific, meeting on the mountains and giving rise to a range of six different climatic and botanical zones. The altitude goes from sea level to 3 800 metres. So there are a large number of habitats, ideal for a multitude of birds.

Most birds are brightly coloured, and many have wonderful names.

Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaw

The trip, in March 2016, organised by the Cape Bird Club, started off in San Jose, after a very long flight. Even in the gardens of our hotel we saw birds like the Great Kiskadee (one of 80 flycatchers in the country) and the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – smaller than our African Scops Owl.

On our first two days at the La Selva Biological Station, at only 35m altitude in tropical rain forest, we were overwhelmed by bird, animal, and amphibian life. Some standouts include Slaty–tailed Trogon (there are 10 Trogons in the country, 8 of which we saw), Great Tinamou, Great Curassow, and Broad–billed Mot Mot. There are 6 Mot Mots in Costa Rica, of which we saw 4.

Non-birds included Iguanas, Basilisks (huge lizards), Fer de Lance (a deadly snake) and the tiny Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. But the big hit was the Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth, surprisingly, on the move.

Our first encounter with hummingbirds was at a restaurant on our way to a rain forest at a higher altitude. There were many, ranging from one of the biggest, the Violet Sabrewing (15cm) to the smallest, the rare Black-bellied Humming Bird (8cm). The country boasts 50 beautiful humming birds, of which our group saw 37 on the trip.

Fiery-billed Aracari

Fiery-billed Aracari

The rain forest, in the Arenal National Park, dwarfed by the impressive 1 633m Arenal volcano, featured a number of beautiful walking trails. At bird feeders outside the dining room we encountered the amazing Montezuma Oropendola, the Grey-headed Chachalaca and the Red-legged Honeycreeper, to name just a few.

On the paths we picked up a range of birds from the tiny but very active Buff-rumped Warbler, the pretty Yellow-faced Grassquit, and the large Turkey Vulture, and eventually, far off, the amazing Three-Wattled Bellbird – named for its bell-like call. Somewhat closer were our first toucans, the striking Keel-billed, and Black Mandibled.

From Arenal we climbed to a lodge adjacent to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest, at 1500m. While the forest was quite dense, thanks to our guides we steadily picked up birds, starting with the huge Black Gaun, Prong-billed Barbet, and culminating with a pair of the amazing Resplendent Quetzals. Also a toucan, but with uppertail coverts which dangle 70cm below the male’s tail. It is rated one of the most beautiful birds in the world, and is the national bird of Guatemala.

From there, in the Curi Cancha Reserve, also cloud forest, we saw the Continental Divide, marking the meeting point of the Caribbean and pacific slopes. And we got a much closer view of the Three-wattled Bellbird.

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal

From there we descended to the Pacific coast where, on the way to our hotel, we got close views of the spectacular Scarlet Macaw, wonderfully coloured and 90cm long, soon followed by close-up sightings of the Turquoise-browed Mot Mot, one of the most beautiful birds of the trip.

One of the highlights of our whole trip was a three-hour boat trip on the nearby Tarcoles River. Mindblowing was the number of largely water birds, seen at close quarters. To name just a few: Southern Lapwing, Tri Coloured Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, and most spectacular of all, the Boat-billed Heron. Also quite a few warblers et al at the water’s edge.

Next day we headed up to the Cerro de la Muerte (mountain of death), so named because of the treacherous conditions experienced by earlier travellers. This was at 3 200m, and an Andean type landscape. More very high-altitude birds, such as the Volcano Junco, a ‘different’ sparrow. A little lower down we were lucky, thanks to our guides tracking it down by call, to find the uncommon Wrenthrush – a little warbler with a striking golden-russet crown.

On the way back to San Jose we picked up our last special birds, including the beautiful Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, the Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, and Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

Among the 12 of us we saw 420 species. Of course, not everyone saw all of these, but most saw over 400. A successful and highly enjoyable trip.

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