©2005 Matthew Dodder. All rights reserved.

Costa Rica 07-14-05 to 07-29-05
(Section 1: arrival in San Jose, transfer to Rancho Naturalista)

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Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)

Day 01:
Arrive in San Jose (late evening)
11:00 pm transfer to Hotel Bougainvillea (San Jose suburb

Our flight out of San Jose, California, included a layover in Houston, TX. From there we caught a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica where we arrived some 4 hours late. Landing around 11:00 pm we met our driver just outside the terminal. He spoke no English, but held a sign against the moist terminal window. "Mr. Dodder" was scrawled on it. After a few anxious moments, I spotted him and rushed to shake his hand. I was quite nervous and so this first indication that a new place was expecting us was understandably reassuring. After our nameless driver handed me an envelope filled with Gateway vouchers, we drove silently to Hotel Bougainvillea and tried to relax as we passed darkened homes and small residential gardens. Outside, in the dark, hundreds of brand new birds awaited identification. Needless to say, the warm humidity, fatigue and 34 years of anticipation, made it difficult for me to relax, let alone sleep. Our rooms were pleasant, but modest, and Cricket's and mine was slightly nicer than our parents. They faced the parking lot, while we had a view of the garden below. Over the bathroom sink was a bilingual message reading "Our water is potable. It is drawn from our own 450-foot well and is regularly tested by a laboratory". Being a nervous traveler though, I used bottled water to brush my teeth. Could we leave the windows open, or would that let too many mosquitoes in...? I wanted to hear any Owls that might decide to call. "Go. Go. Go. Go-weeeeer..." a Common Paraque sang hoarsely somewhere out over the skies of San Jose. "Are we really in Costa Rica," I asked? So many spinning images and childhood dreams... While Cricket arranged tomorrow's clothes, I fumbled for my binoculars at least twice to see something I thought I saw in the dark... We had no time to unpack, I thought. In fact, we needed to stay compact because our transfer would be the following morning immediately after breakfast. I looked at my watch, still on California time. The schedule says it's time to sleep.

Day 02:
Breakfast in San Jose
08:00 am transfer to Rancho Naturalista to meet our guide Leo Garrigues
(2.75 hour drive to this Middle-elevation Forest, 2,900')

Sun's up! and I rushed to explore the garden below. Cricket wasn't entirely ready to join me so I ventured outside to find Kaz and Aiko already birding. I couldn't believe that they beat me to the first morning of birding! Doh! Anyway, the richly landscaped gardens featured a variety of micro habitats including tall shade trees, dense understory in some places, small ponds, large lawns, great stretches of hedgerow and an herb garden replete with piles of garden trimmings. Just perfect for a leisurely intro to an unfamiliar avian landscape, at least I hoped. (There's also a hedge maze with many layers of confusion for those not interested in birds.) Before the first five minutes were through, a mere five species left me confused... First bird of the trip (viewed, at least) was Rufous-collared Sparrow, a lovely little bird that seemed quite tame. We would become very familiar with the species, and as I've noticed on previous trips, the first bird encountered in a new place is quickly eclipsed by the next. Clay-colored Robin, Blue-gray Tanager and Grayish Saltator were then to follow. I recognized the first two in the sequence, but the Saltator forced me to open Skutch. Overhead, Blue-and-white Swallows foraged and White-tipped Doves waddled through the underbrush. Was that a Great-tailed Grackle...? They were coming too fast at this point. Some birds were familiar, like House Wren, and others were brand new, if not completely baffling. I knew I was hearing a Woodpecker, but which one? Just up ahead, Kaz and Aiko seemed similarly overwhelmed, but the newness of everything was thrilling. A Hummingbird, with a rufous tail... A quick look in the book proved we were correct without even realizing it. It was a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird! Kelly was also in the garden at this point and joined us, reporting additional birds such as Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Blue-crowned Motmot and White-eared Ground-Sparrow. Damn! I wanted to see the Motmot... Oh, well. Before breakfast we managed, without the assistance of a guide, to identify White-breasted Wood-Wren, and Hoffman's Woodpecker with confidence. The whole Costa Rican checklist was poised for us to defeat, at least that is how if felt after these first 14 tiny victories.

Above: The view from our balcony.

Breakfast was a delightful buffet with the best coffee I'd had in a while. Rich, thick and dark, with a quick splash of heavy milk. Oh, that's good! Toast, scrambled eggs, ambiguous fruit juice and great displays of exotic fruits. I reached for the dark orange papaya, some melon and a wedge of pineapple. Outside the dining room window the birds rushed back and forth to the feeder which offered bananas and large seeds. Perhaps it was all the excitement of the arrival, or the Blue-gray Tanagers outside the window, but I reached for my coffee and spilled it all over my brand new, quick-dry, rainforest shorts. I decided immediately they looked too new anyway and chose not to rinse them off. The coffee, as expected, dried quickly and contributed to the general jungle flavor of my attire. By the end of day, they were overwhelmed by the darkening stains of sweat and deet... Who cares? This wasn't a fashion show. We were here to experience the rainforest as it really was, hot, wet and soiled with insect repellent.

Above: Dining room at Hotel Bougainvellia

Our driver, Eric, showed up in a Hyundai minivan with plenty of room for us to each enjoy a window. He was young, but not as young as we first thought, 32 we eventually learned, and he enjoyed talking and pointing out aspects of the drive. Sugar cane... coffee bean ... ferns for export... Black Vulture, Great Kiskadee, and as we passed through the ranch lands he pointed out Montezuma Oropendola as well. He said his brother was also a taxi driver and that his father too, was involved in the tourist industry. He loved driving and meeting tourists, but he had never been to the United States because he said it was too difficult to visit if you were a young Costa Rican man. The assumption was, I guess, that young men wanted only to find work, and that, he said was why you could only visit if you were older and rich. Interesting. As we approached Turrialba, where he lives with his wife and little boy, Eric stopped at a grocery store so we could pick up water and juice. We were able to pay with US dollars and received change in Costa Rican colones.

We drove up and over increasingly green hills, the clouds passing overhead, blocking the sun over and over in which direction I couldn't tell. Suddenly, as I found myself lulled by the surroundings, we turned left onto an unimproved road. We dropped to walking speed and lumped over a deep muddy washboard. "Welcome to Rancho Naturalista!" Eric said happily. The axle torture lasted for about a mile and our driver stopped once or twice to allow us to see the birds along the trail. Cricket shrieked when a brilliant red and black bird perched in the low tangled branches a few yards ahead. It was our first Scarlet-rumped Tanager and Kelly's excitement over its appearance nearly melted my heart. She was in the front seat so got the best look. Gray-headed Chachalaca posed along the road as well, looking only slightly different from the familiar Plain Chachalaca we had seen in Texas.

A few moments later and we were pulling up alongside a rugged two-story lodge. From the looks of things, we were behind the main building, and several smaller buildings surrounded it. Several workers stood to greet our van and as Eric slid open the door he introduced us to our very serious-looking guide, Leo. The new face stood tall before us, not overly happy to see a truckload of Americans, but was somewhat happy to see Eric, with whom he seemed familiar.

Above: Main house at Rancho Naturalista

We said goodbye to our driver and lugged our bags to our rooms. The accommodations were beautiful, if not a bit exposed. Windows and doors didn't quite meet their moldings and I wondered what kind of poisonous bugs and reptiles might find their way into our room as we slept. I discovered the following morning a huge green katydid on the wall who moved a total of 10" during our visit. No great threat there, but he did make a loud clicking noise when the lights went out.

Above: Aiko and Kaz outside their room

Above: Cricket's and my room at Rancho Naturalista

Above: Front door of our room

Above: View from our front door

We off-loaded the heavy bags and strapped into our binoculars for a quick pre-lunch tour of the grounds. Leo answered a few questions about birds visiting the feeders, such as the conspicuous White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violet-ear, Green-breasted Mango, Green-crowned Brilliant (all gleaming Hummingbirds) and the shocking red Crimson-collared Tanager. He seemed eager though to leave the main house and take us into the forest where additional birds might be found. A short hike up into the damp and dark woods behind the cabins passed through beautiful picture-perfect rainforest with too many sounds for a newcomer to process. Strangely, very little was visible. We sludged along a muddy single-track trail that featured a steep drop into a wooded creek below. Heavy vines draped from the branches and every shade of green seemed to be present from brilliant yellow-green to deep blackish evergreen as well as emerald, gray-green and olive in between. The forest was a truly 3-D landscape, with sudden clicks and chirps and whistles audible from every direction left, right, above and below, presumably from some unseen bird aware of us, the forest intruders.

Eventually we reached a slight clearing in the woods and a bit of sunlight managed to reach the brown leaf-strewn floor. Three or four Hummingbird feeders were set up a short distance from an observation stand and a short bench. From there we sat and observed while the frenetic buzzing of dozens of competing Hummingbirds struggled to dominate the nectar. Plenty of food to go around, guys... The various Hummingbird personalities were evident rather quickly with the Jacobins being the most dominant (and common) and the Violet-ears fighting for the title. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and the foppish Violet-crowned Woodnymph somewhat less common and less aggressive followed next. Lastly, but perhaps the most sought-after Hummingbird by visitors was the Snowcap. A splendid vision of tiny iridescent purplish-copper. The first one we saw was surprisingly small, scarcely larger than a bumblebee and it dashed in like a gleaming Napoleon challenging the larger birds if only for a moment. The sun caught its purple metal, which was arresting enough, but when it raised its little white cap, it seemed more white than anything I had ever seen. For so little color, that white was more shocking than almost anything imaginable. Pure light! It appeared and disappeared several times, as it faced us and hit the sun just right. The bird too, came and went, demonstrating it's minority stature against the larger, more numerous birds. All the species seemed unduly testosterone-charged however, and any hierarchy implied above is probably due more to majority rule than anything else...

Above: Kaz, Aiko, me and Leo watching the forest feeders at Rancho Naturalista

Above: Me and Cricket at the Hummingbird feeders, exhausted but happy

Above: Kaz and Cricket listening to the sounds of the forest

Above: one of many wonderful trees with huge supporting roots

Above: The secondary rainforest, notice the dense undergrowth

Back to the main lodge to meet our host, a white-haired 70-year-old American woman named Kathy. She was seated in the tiled tiled dining room when we arrived and we later saw she had a great limp that makes walking difficult. Several platters of good looking food rested on the large round table including baked chicken, gallo pinto and fruit. We sat with Leo, Kathy and Andrew, a Canadian student from Toronto. We heard more in that half-hour about the lodge and how she purchased it 35 years earlier with her husband, started a birding tour agency (Gateway) to create a cooperative with several other lodges in the country for visiting birders, and later sold the enterprise to Kevin Easley because they wanted to retire... than you would ever think possible. Still, it was interesting, somewhat, and we were in Costa Rica after all, so colorful personalities were fitting. We complimented her on the food and the lodge and she continued that she had had formal culinary training in the states and so began another miniseries about her life and various accomplishments. "Well, we'd better get back to birding. What time is dinner...?" we asked. Leo suggested we go back to the forest and visit some higher ground. He seemed to be a bit bored at lunch and we later learned that he has no great love for Kathy, in fact he rather dislikes her. Outside the door, a huge butterfly wandered past. It landed in a tree just off of the patio. A full 7" wide, it was one of the famous Calico Butterflies, which look more like moths in overall pattern, and have large false eye spots on their wings that are supposed to frighten predators.

Above: Aiko's photograph of the Calico Butterfly, shown here slightly smaller than actual size

Back to the forest for what seemed like our first real expedition. We quickly passed the forest feeders, casing a sideways glance to the tiny Snowcap and continued up the trail. After stumbling over a maze of thick tangled roots and dodging hanging vines we arrived at a junction. We took the trail to the right and climbed to a relatively open plateau with short grass and a spectacular view of the nearby Silent Mountain. Before we knew it, Leo was calling out species in trees while we were distracted by the landscape. "Short-billed Pigeon calling, Squirrel Cuckoo in that tree, Brown-hooded Parrots flying over the ridge, Social Flycatcher..." You could almost hear our life lists clicking with each new bird like some kind of geiger counter. The only bird seen that was not a lifer was Groove-billed Ani, but the pre-tour studies made many of them familiar. After a while, dark clouds began to swell over the hills across the valley and Leo said with a stoic certainty, "It will be raining in 20 minutes." Of course he was right but we were prepared. We had, after all, an entirely new wardrobe of quick-dry jungle wear. Still, it seemed prudent to return to the lodge and spend time relaxing before dinner. The journal had to be updated with dozens of new birds and I never really got a good look at the Violet-headed Hummingbird anyway. Another butterfly was common here, the Blue Morpho. It is slightly smaller than the Calico, or "Owl Butterfly", and features shiny metalic blue on the top side and bark-like camoflage on the bottom. Butteflies close their wings when they rest, unlike moths, so this species seems to change from bluish wonder to mothy drab in an instant. Perhaps this is one origin of the name, Morpho. They had fluttered through the forest, blue and bautiful, unperturbed by the light drizzle, but now as the rain began to fully establish itself, they rested on branches, closed their wings and disappeared altogether.

Above: Aiko looking at the Rufous Motmot, me consulting the field guide, and Leo trying to smile for the camera

Above: Kaz, Cricket and Aiko looking across the pasture toward the valley. Their concerned looks may be because of the approaching storm

Above: Crossing the pasture back into the forest to reach Manakin habitat

Above: Kaz, Aiko and me still climbing

After dinner, and conversation, Andrew asked if Leo had considered taking us out to find any Owls. That would be great, we thought. One of the gardeners had already located a Mottled Owl near the entrance and within a few seconds of broadcasting the song from my iPod, we had relocated the bird. By now it was pouring rain and we were sloshing along the road with umbrellas and flashlights. The ease with which we found the Owl made us hungry for more nighttime adventures. Leo led us back into the forest to show us a tarantula nest in the dark. Schedule said it's time for bed, again. But I didn't want to go... "Ok. We'll see you in the morning", Leo said.

Day 03:
Rancho Naturalista with Leo Garrigues

I was awakened before sunrise, something like 4:00, by the haunting sound of Rufous Motmot. It is an absolutely perfect sound for the rainforest and it echoed through the dark like a voice from beyond. It is also a familiar sound to anyone who has ever seen a movie set in the jungle. "That's it! I'm getting up..." Cricket and I jumped out of bed, slathered on great amounts of Avon Skin-So-Soft bug repellent, donned our quick-dry shirts and shorts, readied our numerous binocular, camera and shoulder bag straps, and headed out the door to the main house. There, Leo was scheduled to meet us for a 5:30 pre-breakfast walk.

Above: The lovely balcony overlooking the feeders at Rancho Naturalista, coffee was wating for us when we arrived

Above: These sacropia trees provided perches for Oropendola, Chachalaca, Motmot and Aracari, all seen from the balcony

The activity at the feeders was nothing short of amazing. Bronzed Cowbirds were the most numerous, with some 20 individuals crowding the banana laden platform. Montezuma Oropenolas, much larger of course, and brilliant yellow and chestnut, arrived next. Gray-headed Chachalacas clambered over the leafless tree to feast on the many fruits impaled on the branches. Tanagers of various kinds appeared as well. Blue-gray, Passerini's (the newly defined Caribbean species, previously lumped with Cherri's Tanager of the Pacific slope, to form Scarlet-rumped Tanager) and Palm Tanagers. From the balcony we also had an intimate look at the Hummingbird feeders which appeared to be experiencing an avian rush hour. Dozens of Hummingbirds zipped back and forth, chasing each other and passing so close to our ears and faces that the wind from their tiny wings could be felt. "Where is Leo...?", I wondered. "I don't recognize that Hummingbird."

A moment later, he showed up answering all our questions but quickly ushering us back into the woods. The Hummingbirds would still be there when we return... "Collared Aracari!" Leo said calmly as it landed on an exposed branch just off the balcony. He said if I walked slowly to the next building, I might be able to get a picture. I followed his suggestion and got to within 10 feet of the strange-looking, Toucan-like bird. I snapped my slide film camera a dozen times, filling the frame completely with the black, yellow and red bird. With luck the images would be alright. But I was so excited I think I must have been shaking... This was the real stuff, I thought. So close to a bird I had only seen in zoos, and here it was so near I could see the individual lashy feathers around its eyes... Leo still urged us to move on, knowing, of course, that Aracaris were not that hard to find. Still, for northerners the bird seemed like pure treasure.

Above: Collared Aracari, a small relative of the Toucan (digiscoped image)

He led us down the road toward the main road where the habitat was relatively open. Wooden fences with barbed wire separated our trail from an old orchard. Yellow-green Vireo, Melodious Blackbird, Yellow-billed Cacique and Black-headed Saltator came in rapid succession. A frog-like croaking emanated from the tall trees not far away. I recognized the sound, but could hardly believe we were hearing Keel-billed Toucan for real. With minimum effort, a pair of Toucans were located beneath the canopy of a a huge tree. Their toy-colored disproportionately large bills opened and closed with their toneless conversation. It would be a familiar sound by end of day. Nearby the orchard produced Masked Tityra, Cinnamon Becard and Piratic Flycatcher. Not a bad beginning to the day, but our stomachs were grumbling and the bell rang, indicating breakfast was served.

Above: Keel-billed Toucan (digiscoped image)

After a filling breakfast, we returned to the forest, passed the forest feeders and the Snowcap, finding also the elusive Black-headed Nightingale Thrush and a glorious Rufous Motmot along the way. Violet-crowned Woodnymph was quickly becoming my new favorite Hummingbird, his jewel-like feathers of purple and green glowed in the dappled light of the rainforest. Green Hermit was not like any Hummingbird I had seen before. It's bill is long and curved and the tail uncommonly long as well. Red-footed Plumleteer... what a name! It's like they ran out of colorful words to describe these tiny iridescent birds. Leo used his laser pointer to show us exactly where the bird was. It works rather well, as long as you're careful not to shine the red dot on the bird itself. Another method he employed, when natural light made the laser impractical, was a tiny mirror, which could be aimed in such a way to reflect a focused sun beam into a tree. Then anoisy scolding in the underbrush proved to be a Red-throated Ant Tanager, apparently a very difficult bird to view, but we managed just fine. Two species of Trogons, Black-throated and Collared were seen as well. They sat calmly in the lower branches of the canopy, visible with effort through the mesh of vines and great dripping leaves. We continued up the trail that was becoming increasingly steep and muddy to an area where we were supposed to find White-collared Manakin. We broadcast the bizarre clicking, snapping love song of the male. Really, it sounded more like breaking twigs than it did a bird, and we learned it is not a vocalization at all, but rather the audible snap of the bird's wings that attracts the female. No males appeared, but sure enough, a dull green female emerged from the deep to investigate the sounds from our speakers. Perhaps later we would see the male, we hoped. Despite numerous tries, that never happened.

Above: Cricket standing within few of the Black-throated Trogon

Above: Black-throated Trogon (digiscoped image)

Above: Blue-crowned Motmot (digiscoped image)

Heavy rain was now falling, just in time for lunch. Birding came full stop. I should say now, so it will be clear... when it rains in Costa Rica, it really rains. No small summer shower this, but a full loud rain, like nothing familiar at all. It is a straight-down deafening torrential drenching with huge drops of heavy warm rain that comes by the tanker-load. It creates a constant low frequency white noise against the heavy leaves and a dark gray curtain of vertical lines. Truly wonderful to see and hear.

After lunch the rain continued without fatigue for what seemed an eternity. It just kept on falling darkly, so we used the several-hour stretch as an opportunity to sit on our patio and enjoy the warm, gray and deep green spectacle. Occasionally, a Hummingbird battled against the downpour to feed from one of the flowering bushes, but generally it was a birdless time. We sat, made notes and waited out the storm. Suddenly, but without much in the way of alarm, a small earthquake rattled our cabin. The hammock swayed back and fourth as did the tall pink dendrobiums and then it was gone. In the distance, the bell rang softly from the aftershock...

Above: The storm

When the rain finally did let up, we met Leo again for a brief, drippy hike into the forest. While I'm sure some new birds were located, the strongest impression I have is the muffled chorus of the forest animals as they announced the end of the storm. The brief silence was increasingly occupied with the sound of a few buzzing, clicking insects, croaking frogs and woodland birds. Soon all was up to full volume again... Without really being told, we assumed this to be a daily rhythm--the early morning frenzy of conspicuous feeding, followed by an all-ceasing cat-and-dog downpour where everthing animal takes whatever available cover can be found. The constant din of rain, fuzzy-and-loud, eventually thins to allow a more normal level of faunal voice. The now familiar Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Brown Jays and Oropendolas grew more bold in their soundings. They knew the rain was over, at least for a while. Insect activity also rises after a shower and thousands of termites took this opportunity to launch themselves into the air in search of new homes to drill. Perhaps their flight explains the incredible bird presence, especially insectivorous species like Short-tailed Nighthawk that was right there with them in the darkening sky.

Go to the NEXT SECTION of this report....

Or choose a different section:
Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)