Before we left the Savegre Valley Johan wanted to have one last go at finding the Black-faced Solitaire which, in the past, we have christened the rusty hinge bird. It’s call really does sound like a rusty hinge and we have heard it many a time on forest trails. But it’s a shy bird which mainly skulks around the undergrowth and its call tends to echo around making it difficult to place. Still, with Johan’s acute hearing and 20:20 vision, we were bound to find it weren’t we? Well, the short answer is no. We had searched for this bird in every location we visited and still our only sighting has been on page 248 of The Birds of Costa Rica. Still we did see a very nice Wood Quail so could go in to eat breakfast with at least one new sighting for the day.
The final part of our birding trip would take us to the Caribbean lowlands but that meant journeying through San Jose which we were not looking forward to. I think we struck lucky with it being a Sunday and Johan was able to navigate some back streets and get us through in relatively quick time and we arrived at La Selva Biological Station by mid afternoon.
La Selva is one of the most important protected environments in the neo-tropics and more than half of it is primary rain forest – trees that have never been felled or controlled in any way. As such it is species rich and hosts a huge variety of flaura and fauna. It was established in 1953 by Leslie Holdridge (who developed the system of life zone classification which is still used today) and is now run by a consortium of universities and research bodies. It offers courses to university students and research facilities. And it’s a place that Jane and I have wanted to visit for a very long time so we were delighted to get there.
As our cabin, which was sited about a kilometre away, wasn’t yet ready we whiled away the time visiting the gift shop and walking around the grounds where we soon spotted a mixed feeding flock of tanagers and warblers, Slaty-tailed Trogon, together with a few peccary. Just as in the Forest of Dean these wild porcines wander about rooting out grubs, etc. They don’t seem to be as aggressive as our wild boar and we managed to get very close to them.
As we were driving to our rooms Johan stopped the car and took us wandering down a track. He’d been told that a Vermiculated Screech Owl could be found there. Well, with a name like that you’ve just got to have a go at finding one, haven’t you. The problem is that this owl is very small and likes to perch on low branches in dense vegetation. We wandered up and down passing the same spots several times until Johan heard a very soft hoot. Now we knew roughly where it was -in the middle of some very scrubby bush where the light hardly penetrated. We were about to give up when Jane announced she had got them – because it turned out there were a pair, although how she found them I don’t know. She definitely won the ‘spot of the day’ prize.
It’s interesting that, of all the places we stayed on our birding trip, La Selva was our favourite. It was the most basic. Our cabin, with a double bunk bed and a single bed (no cama matrimonal here) was simply furnished and oldish but it had a balcony looking out onto the rainforest. What more could you want. Well, actually, what we did ask for was a kettle to boil water for a cup of tea. We are British after all.
“A Cattle?”, asked Johan looking puzzled.
“No, a kettle”, said Jane.
He still didn’t understand. “Cattle, as in Cattle Egret?”
“No. Kettle. For boiling water.”
“I don’t know, what is a kettle.” declared Johan.
We eventually solved our impending tea crisis by getting reception to put a coffee maker in the room. It seems they don’t have many kettles in Costa Rica so I’ve come up with the novel idea of making an electric kettle in the shape of an upright white bird and calling it a Kettle Egret. Should be a winner, at least among the birding fraternity.
After a restful night, troubled only by the incessant cry of the Common Paraque, a nocturnal bird which seemed to spend most of its time sitting on the path right outside our room, we were up at some unearthly hour getting ready for our walk to breakfast. Yes, that’s right. We were paying a fortune for this trip but room service was definitely not on the cards. Instead we walked through the rainforest for an hour and a quarter spotting birds including a Laughing Falcon doing a fine Lone Ranger impression.
Like all meals at La Salva, breakfast is taken in a communal dining area and it’s an eclectic mix of scientists, students, people like us with binos round their necks and blokes (it’s invariably blokes) weighed down with cameras and extremely long lenses. But it has a great, bustling atmosphere and although meals are not exactly relaxed affairs it’s still nice to be able to talk to other travellers such as a French Canadian couple who told us about any number of bird events in Canada we just shouldn’t miss, such as the migration of Snow Geese. As is often the case with Canadians we received an invite to stay with them if we make it to Canada.
But back in Costa Rica we were having trouble keeping up with the number of species we were seeing in La Selva. It reportedly boasts a bird list of more than 450 species so there was a lot to choose from. But it isn’t only birds that use these forests. Johan told us that a few weeks previously he had been phoned by a friend who said “Get yourself down here to La Selva if you can, Johan. There’s a Jaguar which I’m looking at right now.” Johan hoisted his camera and lens into the car, drove for three hours and sprinted to where his friend was but there was no big cat to be seen. “It left 10 minutes ago.” was the news which greeted him. Johan waited around for another 3 hours just in case but had to call it a day in the end.
Johan pointed to a very interesting feature of the Owl-eye Butterfly which you can see in the photo above. The eye on the lower wing is very prominent and aimed at deterring predators. But the top right of the upper wing also looks like a snake’s head so this butterfly is fighting predators on two fronts. It’s certainly beautiful to see flitting through the forest.
Our final pre-breakfast walk had a bit of an end of term feel about it and we just wandered around the grounds spotting a Great Crested Currasow among other things. But one bird we had failed to find was the Snowy Cotinga, a very white bird. Johan knew where we should find it, in some tall trees which could be seen from the suspension bridge crossing the river. But, on this occasion, Johan and Jane must have had their minds set on breakfast because they simply walked over the bridge and off to the dining room. I was lagging behind a little and couldn’t help but have just one last scan. And, sure enough, the Cotinga chose that moment to fly off to the other side of the river – an unmistakably white bird which could only be one thing. So, of course, I was feeling slightly smug at breakfast whilst Johan was cursing himself for not scanning the trees.
But, you know, it doesn’t matter. We saw 228 species of birds in 6 days – almost 25% of the birds which occur in Costa Rica and that is pretty good going by anyones books. We also saw a lot of other wildlife and plantlife and some amazingly beautiful places. But most of all we had the immense pleasure of being in Johan’s company for all that time. It’s a bit of a risk when you hire a guide you don’t know because they are not all as brilliant or as wonderfully warm, funny, humane and enjoyable companions as Johan. We certainly got the right man for us and feel we have made a real friend.