A Costa Rican Bird Tour (Part 1)

We couldn’t leave Labrador without doing one last birding walk. So 5am once again found us up with the howlers, getting out of the house just as the sun came up. This time we wanted to travel into the hills and so Ana, Jane and I jumped into Andy’s car (a.k.a. The White Bullet) and drove to Atenas. We had read in ‘A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica’ by Stiles and Skutch (THE birding bible) that the forest around the Atenas Watershed Reserve had some good birding. But Stiles and Skutch is decades old so we were taking a chance that the trails still exist. However, it transpires that there still are tracks through a community forest project. Almost at once we saw a new species of Parrot. Ana didn’t want to go down the steep trail but we were hearing an enticing sound which we just couldn’t resist following. And before too long we found the birds responsible – the Long-tailed Manakin. These tiny black and blue birds are one of those species that you can’t help falling in love with. And what we found was two males looking for love, calling and hopping up and down on their lek perch. What a fab start to the day.

Two Long-tailed Manakins males at their lek

Could it get any better. Well yes it could. Above the forest trail we could get access to a dirt road which we soon discovered was alive with birds. We parked the car and it was here that Ana introduced us to a brand new style of bird watching. Before leaving home we had packed some freshly home baked bread, a bottle of honey, a banana and a flask of coffee. But best of all Ana had donned wellington boots and packed a plastic picnic chair into the back of the car. She now proceeded to heft this up the road to a tree we had already checked out as being a haven for birds, sit down and watch the comings and goings in comfort. Generous as ever, Ana insited I have a sit down and, do you know what, it turns out to be a great way to birdwatch.


Birding Tico style

In this one small area alone we spotted many new birds but none more exciting than a tiny bright green and intense yellow little one which Ana christened the Jamaica bird for its colours. It turns out that the Golden-browed Chlorophonia not only has an unusual name but is an endangered endemic. Common where it is found its range is quite restricted, so much so that the Costa Rica Bird Club ask those who spot it to file a sighting report, which Ana did. Wow, what a way to end our time in Labrador and we celebrated with the coffee, bread and honey. How sweet is life.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

7.30am the next day found us saying au revoir to Ana and hello to our birding guide, Johan Fernadez. This was going to be a long day of driving, over 300 klms in the end, but broken up by some welcome bird watching. Our route took us through Atenas, where we were able to point out to Johan the places we’d seen the Manakins and the Chlorophonia. We passed under Poas volcano and along the road to La Paz waterfall, before stopping for lunch nearby at a lovely restaurant with a view of the waterfall and a feeding station for birds. As well as hummingbirds at the nectar feeders other notable birds eating the fruit were Red-headed Barbet and Emerald Toucanet.

Emerald Toucanet

Red-headed Barbet

We still had a ways to go before we would arrive at Rancho Naturalista, home for the first two nights of our tour. Before then, Johann was keen to show us Cope’s place. Cope is an artist who makes wonderful drawings and paintings from nature and he has even created a wildlife garden in his own back yard with running water and plenty of feeding stations. Almost as soon as we got out of the car he was beckoning us to come and see a White-tipped Sicklebill Hummingbird which has the most amazing curved bill. He then took us further afield to see a magnificent Crested Owl and a pair of Spectacled Owls.Back at Copes place we sipped tea and watched more hummingbirds, Russet-naped Wood Rail,  Chesnut-headed Oropendola and other birds. And as were leaving Cope’s wife told us to look up into a small tree growing at the side of the house. There was a Three-toed Sloth gazing down at us not more than 12 feet above our heads.


Spectacled Owl

Chestnut-headed Oropendola


Three-toed Sloth

We continue on Ruta 32. This is the main route between San Jose and the port of Moin, Limon so it’s full of slow moving lorries, buses and, of course cars. Costa Rica is a wonderful land in many respects but its transport infrastructure definitely leaves a lot to be desired. You can be stuck behind a slow moving vehicle for an hour so progress can be painfully slow. Luckily for us Johan decided to turn off the main highway and drive a little used back country road up over mountains on down valleys. It still took two hours to get to our destination and probably didn’t save much time but the views along the way were stunning so it didn’t matter.

We finally fetched up at Rancho Naturalista a few kilometers from the main town of Turrialba just before 6pm and in the dark. It had been a very long day and all we could do was quickly dump our bags and get down to the dining room in time for the evening meal (which was excellent) and then go back to our room, shower and then fall into bed. At Rancho Naturalista everyone is tucked up in their jim-jams by 8pm!

Rancho was set up back in the 1980’s to preserve some of the mid elevation rainforest near Turrialba volcano. It’s set high in the hills and is a haven for birdlife and hence for birdwatchers. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and there is a great viewing area with feeders which attract wildlife. They also have an insect trap, basically a white sheet with a light behind it, which is lit at night and fills with moths and insects. Pre-dawn found us sitting on benches waiting for insectivorous birds to make their appearance. As dawn arrived so too did the birds – Treecreepers, Leaftossers, Flycatchers, Warblers – all manner of birds arrived in the first half hour of the new day.

Dawn at Rancho Naturalista

Rancho has many great birding trails which you can walk yourself but the benefit of going with a guide like Johan is that he only has to hear a bird, and he has excellent hearing, to know exactly what it is and where to find it. He really does seem to know every bird call and be able to pin point every bird, often using his laser pen to point out where we need to look. Going further afield we set off in search of the elusive Sun Bittern, looking in all the surrounding rivers and streams but, for once, failed to find it. It doesn’t matter because the views are wonderful and you can always go back to the lodge and look around the feeders for interesting stuff.

Fiery-billed Aracari

Red-tailed Squirrel

Montezuma Oropendola nests


The one bird that everyone wants to see is also one of the tiniest – the Snowcap Hummingbird. It visits the flowers often enough but is chased away by the much bigger hummingbirds.  But Rancho held one final surprise for us -the hummingbird pools. At about 5pm, as the light was fading, Johan took us to a viewing platform above a small stream. There are a series of shallow pools and here small birds come to bath. The warblers do it the conventional way by getting in the water and thrashing about. But hummingbirds have a different method – they constantly hover above the water and then dip themselves into it, time after time. We have never seen this behaviour before and I think it’s a pretty uncommon  sight. It’s too dark in the forest for photography but we spent a wonderful half an hour just watching this unique behaviour.

The following day we are off to pastures new but more of that in part 2.

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