Wanting somewhere for our annual 2 weeks in the sun that combined a good quality beach hotel with plenty of opportunities for quality birding for myself we this year plumped for Costa Rica in Cental America with First Choice holidays.
We booked to stay at the Occidental Grand Papagayo on the Gulf of Papagayo in the province of Guanacaste in the North West Pacific side of the country.
Before departing I did some research via trip reports on the usual birding websites and looked up reviews on the hotel on Trip Advisor.
It was during a trawl through Trip Advisor that I came across a rave review on a small independent tour company by someone staying at our hotel that they had used for their excursions.
The company was Eco Explorer Costa Rica run by Carlos Luis Jimenez and using the link to their website I was pleased to discover that Carlos ran specific half,full or two day birdwatching trips.
We exchanged several e-mails and Carlos provided an excellent itinarary of trips that he was able to offer,we became good friends even before we had even met eachother face to face.
We agreed that I would contact Carlos a few days into our holiday.
We flew out of London Gatwick early morning on Fri 19th Sept returning 2 weeks later on Sat 4th Oct 2008.
As we came in to land at Liberia airport passing over some fabulous looking wetlands I spied my first "trip tick",a flock of about 20 Cattle Egrets.
A short transfer got us quickly to our hotel and the initial view from the terrace across the bay was breathtaking.
The hotel along with a few others was fairly remote with the huge plus that it was surrounded for as far as the eye could see with tropical dry forest.
Tropical "dry forest" consists of deciduous trees which drop their leaves in the "dry" season but during the "wet" season which was the time that we were visiting is truly green and lush.
It didn't take me long to realize that the place was teaming with birds and
the noise that they all made was incredible.It didn't take me too long to rack up a list of about 60 species just in the hotel grounds and surrounding woodlands and roadsides including Great Kiskadees,Orange-Fronted Parakeets,Rufous-Naped Wrens,Inca and White-Winged Doves,Tropical Kingbirds,Hoffman's Woodpeckers,White-Throated Magpie-Jays,Groove-Billed Anis,Great-tailed Grackles and the obligatory Black and Turkey Vultures,I even got a "sunlounger tick" one day of a fly-over Osprey !!
The beach at the hotel was not quite the white sands that we have experienced in other places and was pretty similar to home being quite dark and with lots of "debris" from the dry forest which encroached all the way down to the edge of the sand.
There was quite a tide and at low tide there were several rocky outcrops visible with rockpools providing a suitable habitat for Spotted Sandpiper,American Oystercatcher,Whimbrel and those expert "fishermen" the Brown Pelicans.
I started to find my feet a little and my way around the outskirts of the hotel,the weather for the most part was up in the high 20s-low 30s at it's hottest with very high humidity which made for very uncomfortable birding conditions especially when entering the forest areas.
I made an early start most mornings and was out of our room by 05.45 returning for a shower and breakfast with Teresa at about 09.30,this gave me on average 3-3.5 hours at what was the best time of day and although a little cooler still unbearably humid,most mornings I returned looking as if someone had just thrown a bucket of water over me !!
I was starting to pick up some good birds at this time and regularly saw a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos,and also picked up Turquoise-Browed Motmot and a White -Necked Puffbird which I was later told by Carlos was a really good bird to see in the locality (a sort of giant cross between a kingfisher and a shrike is how I could best describe it !!)
After a few days I made contact with Carlos and myself and Teresa embarked upon the first of three trips that we arranged,this first trip was to Palo Verde Reserve which combined a fair bit of birdwatching for myself with a two hour boat trip on the Tempeste river.We were picked up at the hotel at 06.00 and after about 10 mins on the mini-bus the heavens opened for the next 3 hours,despite the heavy rain we birded the backroads to the reserve picking up some good birds such as Double-Striped Thick-Knee,Spot-Breasted Oriole,Orchard Oriole,Harris Hawk,Laughing Falcon,Crested Caracara,Woodstork,Cliff Swallow,Bank Swallow,Gray Hawk and a pair of Great Black Hawk.The bird of the day though was a Collared Forest-Falcon which although normally a shy and reclusive forest hunter was perched out in the open on a dead tree.This was the first of this species that Carlos had seen for 2 years and was a magnificent bird indeed.
We pushed on and arrived at the boat compound on the river at 09.30 where myself,Teresa and Carlos joined a boat with another tour company with a few more Brits.
Carlos took over as guide for the tour of the river and his depth of knowledge of Costa Rican flora,fauna and avi-fauna was absolutely amazing.
We picked up some really good birds along the river which included Little Blue Heron,White Ibis,Limpkin,Great Egret,Snowy Egret,Green Heron.Black-Crowned Night-Heron and one that I really wanted to see Boat-Billed heron.This is one weird looking heron and I cannot imagine that any prey escape it's awesome bill,I left my 'scope on the mini-bus but managed to"fluke" a half tidy record photo by "digi-binning" !!
Whilst on the river I also managed to "tick" the 3 commoner species of kingfisher these being Green,Amazon and Ringed.
We also saw a number of crocodiles including one of approx 15',Howler monkeys,White-Faced monkeys,Green and Black Iguannas,Jesus Christ lizard (it can run across the surface of water !!) and ant-eater.
After an excellent meal at a local restaurant and with vastly improved weather we birded our way back to the hotel again along the back-roads picking up some great birds along the way.These included Boat-Billed and Social Flycatchers,Yellow and Mourning Warblers,Cinnamon and Caviet's Hummingbird,Roadside,Gray and Short-Tailed Hawks,Northern Jacana and a very showy Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron fishing in a roadside stream.
The plummage detail on this heron has got to be seen to be believed !!
We also had incedible views of at least 4 White-Tailed Kites hunting over grassland on the return journey and just as I was about to click the shutter on one perched on a post not 100 yds away the b-----r flew off !!
WTK are the American version of Europes Black-Shouldered Kite.
We eventually got back to the hotel at 5.00pm an 11 hour trip when the same trip with First Choice barely lasted 5 hours,Carlos certainly gives value for money and I can only thank Teresa for her patience and perseverance,she was absolutely shattered by the end of the day.
Whilst sitting by the pool bar a few days into our stay we made friends with another two birders Barry and Stella Jones from Nottingham who having been badly let down by their day-trip tour company agreed to join me on my next day out with Carlos.This was to be a 2 hour drive north to Heliconias Lodge for some "proper" rainforest birding.Teresa decided to sit this one out and have a relaxing day by the pool,Carlos picked the three of us up at 05.30am with the intention of getting to the lodge by 07.30am for an early start.Birding was relatively quiet along the way apart from Roadside and Gray Hawks,Double-Striped Thick-Knee, the first "kiiler" bird of the day was a Yellow-Headed Caracara which we startled as it tucked into a roadkill,Crested are a bit special but this bird was superb and another "lifer".
Further along the road and not too far from our destination a falcon/hawk perched in a roadside tree turned out to be one of five Laughing Falcons that we were to see that day,what a magnificent specimen with it's "bandit mask".
We soon arrived at the lodge and set out on the forest trail which consisted of a 3 mile "loop" of well defined track through dense forest combining the crossing of 3 hanging canopy bridges.
As Carlos put it "dry-forest is quantity but rainforest is quality" and we were not to be disappointed soon picking up Black-Headed Nightingale Thrush,Song Wren ,Vilaceous Quail-Dove,Masked Tyra,Purple-Crowned Woodnymph (what an exquisite name for a hummingbird !),Green Hermit,Spotted Antbird and Black-Throated Trogon.Whilst watching a hummingbird yours truly noticed a falcon/hawk perched higher and further back in the "jungle",we were soon all on the bird and to everyones amazement it turned out to be another Collared Forest-Falcon this time in much more familiar surroundings.Carlos hadn't seen one for 2 years and then we get 2 in 4 days,Hawkeye Slocombe strikes again !!
Since entering the forest Carlos had been "calling" Tody Motmot a very much sought after bird which is found only in a very small area of Costa Rica on the slopes of the Guanacaste volcanoes,after some time we got a response from two birds one of which was a little further along our route.
Sure enough Hawkeye struck again spotting one sat on a branch not 20yds into the undergrowth,the bird duly obliged just long enough for me to digi-scope a few record shots of this rare and stunning little motmot.
Carlos' fieldcraft was really coming into play with him picking up on every small movement and call,high in the canopy we picked up a pair of Keel-Billed Toucans and also a pair of Crested Guan,the Guan are "turkey"sized birds but quickly disappeared in the density of the foliage,on the forest floor I was the only one of us three "tourists" to get on to the back end of a Great Curassow (another huge bird) before it also vanished into the undergrowth.
We walked on and soon came to the sequence of "hanging" bridges which with Teresa's fear of heights I don't think she would have coped with,although very robust with steel cabling the narrowness of the footway was a little offputting to say the least.
We birded on picking up a flight view of a Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan,a Cocoa Woodcreeper gave good views as it crept up the side of a tree in true "treecreeper" fashion and further along the trail we picked up two more hummingbirds in Rufous-Tailed and Green Hermit.
We were soon at the end of the circular walk which ended back at the lodge parking area,a splendid lunch was enjoyed in the dining area and we set off back down the hill to the main road to spend the afternoon birding the surrounding fields and patches of woodland.The birds were coming thick and fast and we all enjoyed splendid views of Brown Jay,Montezuma Oropendolas (I kid you not with the name !!-a huge oriole),Golden-Crowned Warblers,Yellow-Bellied Elaenias,Passerini's,Scarlet,Palm and Blue and Gray Tanagers and half a dozen Collared Aracaris high on some nearby trees.
Variable Seedeaters,Yellow-Naped Parrots,Blackburnian Warbler,Yellow-Faced Grassquit,Scaly-Breasted Hummingbird,House Wren,Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher followed as White-Collared and Gray-Rumped Swifts dashed overhead with Blue and White Swallows and Gray-Breasted Martins but a real gem of a bird was a Green Honeycreeper that posed quite obligingly for a few snaps.
A few spots of rain in the air soon turned into a deluge as we ran back to the mini-bus and it did not let up during the two hour drive back to base.Although only a couple of hours away we were very lucky with the weather as Teresa reported that it had rained on and off for most of the day back at the hotel.What a fantastic day and certainly up there in my top five of birding days out,Barry and Stella were great company and Carlos really came into his own,as he put it "rainforest birding is quality not quantity" and boy did we see some top quality birds.
Waders were a bit thin on the ground and Carlos informed me that there was a small estuary where a local river entered the sea about a 40min walk from the hotel,the usual early start saw me pick up the usual suspects along the main road,Great Kiskadees,Orange-Fronted Parakeets,Rufous-Naped Wrens and various "tyrant" flycatchers,A tiny streaky brown bird on the top of a plantation fence turned out to be my only sighting of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,this was even smaller than our Little Owl barely 6" in height but as I was about to press the shutter it decided to disappear into the roadside woodland much to my annoyance.
The estuary although not big by many means held some good birds and the beach was littered with about 50 Black Vultures all eyeing me up for their next meal as I passed within about 15 ft of some of them !!
There were some good birds around with Spotted Sandpipers,Sanderling,Whimbrel and Ruddy Turnstones along the shoreline.A larger longer legged wader foraging along the river edge turned out to be a Greater Yellowlegs which was a "lifer" for me and duly obliged for a couple of record shots.
There were several "heron" species along the river with Little Blue Heron,White Ibis and a "bogey" bird for me on previous trips - Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron.On this occasion there were six roosting on an old dead tree in the middle of the
An excellent morning out with some great birds including two more "lifers"
Our final trip a couple of days before returning home was to be to Arenal Volcano and thermal hot springs which was to be mainly a sightseeing trip but with myself and Carlos "getting a bit of birdin' in".We were to be joined on this trip by John and Mandy from Kent a smashing couple that we had made friends with earlier in the holiday.We set off early on what was to be a long day with a 4 hour drive each way to the volcano.Our first stop which was a total surprise to me and also to Carlos was the sight of a pair of Jabiru that had just re-occupied a nest about 30mins drive from the hotel,the nest was about 1/2 mile away across fields but a reasonable view was had through the 'scope despite the heat haze.There are only about 12 breeding pairs of this huge stork in the whole of Costa Rica and all within Guanacaste province.Birding was quiet along the route with only the usual Roadside and Gray Hawks and several Double-Striped Thick-Knees in the roadside fields.Ater several hours we stopped at a delightful roadside restaurant for what was to be an excellent lunchtime meal,after choosing from the menu myself and Carlos leaving the other three chatting crossed the road to scan the adjacent forest of which we had an excellent elevated view,hard to believe but within 10minutes I had picked up 3 more woodpecker species with Black-Cheeked,Rufous-Winged and Smokey Brown,the later being a reaaly good bird to see.There were also Dusky capped flycatcher,Buff Rumped Warbler,White-Vented Euphonia and Buff Throated Saltator.
After a hearty meal we pushed on to get to Lake Arenal and our first views of the volcano,the lake was gigantic, is totally man-made and provides a huge % of Costa Rica's electricity via it's hydro-electric turbines.
Neither of us had ever seen a "live" volcano before so this was a "geology tick" for both Teresa and myself.
After the obigatory scenic photos we pushed on and nearing our destination we pulled into a small private nature reserve to which Carlos had access,we drove up the forest track to the top of the hill where myself,John and Carlos got out and one of the wardens drove the minibus back down to the car park where the women would wait for us.
Carlos had planned a walk back down a track through the rainforest and before we set off one of the wardens put us on to a White Hawk perched in a nearby tree viewable from the parking area,it was a bird that had frequented the area for the previous few days.
This was some bird and one of the most beautiful I've had the pleasure of seeing,pure white with only some black wing bars and banding on the tail,John not being a birder must have thought myself and Carlos were demented idiots as we enthused over the bird !!
We birded the trail down through the rainforest although it was fairly quiet wih Checker-Throated Ant-Wren and Steaked-Headed Woodcreeper being the only birds of note although just before entering the trail we did see a Long Tailed Tyrant with it's incredibly long thin tail about 3x the length of it's body.
We caught up with Teresa and Mandy back at the car park at the bottom of the trail from where I had excellent views of a small group of Red-Lored Parrots,yet another parrot "tick".
The hot springs were only about 15 mins drive away and whilst Teresa,Mandy and John eased their tired bodies into the steaming pools myself and Carlos decided to bird the tropical grounds of the spa and picked up some really good birds,Golden-Hooded Tanager,Cinamon Becard,Bananaquit,Bright-Rumped Attila,Common Tody Flycatcher,Chestnut-Sided Warbler and best of all Crimson-Collared Tanager were all "lifers" as we waited for the other three to finish their swim.
Darkness was starting to fall as we left the hot springs and made our way to a local hotel in the shadow of the volcano,a superb evening meal was enjoyed in the "garden" restaurant before we headed to the viewpoint to see the lava flow of the volcano after dark.Although some distance away the view through the 'scope was truly amazing as the volcano coughed and spluttered spewing molten lava and rocks from the summit.
None of us were looking forward to the long drive back to the hotel but a roadside stop to view a feeding Two-Toed Sloth in a tree overhanging the road broke the monotony,another mammal "tick".
With only a morning left to bird before departing for the airport my trip list was 158 and I desperately wanted to get to the even figure of 160.An early start in the forest adjacent the hotel gave me some good birds but all I had seen previously.A Northern Rough-Winged Swallow got me to 159 and just as I got near the hotel and was about to concede defeat a flycatcher that I knew I hadn't seen before appeared at the top of a tree,Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher,"woo-hoo"as Homer would say 160 !!
As I wasn't on a "proper" birding holiday I knew that I wasn't going to get into the double hundreds as most birders do when birding "dawn 'til dusk" but if anybody had offered me a toatal of 160 with 130 being "lifers" before leaving the U.K I'd have snatched their hand off !!
Costa Rica is probably the most amazing country that I have visited,with a species list of over 850 for such a small country and more than the whole of the USA put togethor there cannot be many better destinations for birding.
We had a fantastic holiday in a wonderful country and I certainly hope to go back some day,when I do there is someone I will certainly look up,my "amigo" Carlos !!
Photographs in descending order :-
1.View from hotel reception terrace.
2.White-throated Magpie Jay.
12.Palo Verde boat trip.
17.Stella,Barry and Jeff.
18.Carlos-The "Eco Explorer".
24.Little Blue Heron.
26.Jabiru at nest.
29.White Hawk (what a stunna !!)
32.Arenal volcano lava flow after dark.