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We just completed a 17-day birding tour of Costa Rica in which we travelled fairly widely within the country. Our expert local guide, Alex Villegas, was with us once again, as on our trip in November (See trip report on Birdchat of 12/10/98). Our group included Mary Reese from Oregon, my wife Nancy and me along with Alex and our driver, Eric.

We got off to a fast start on day one by going to a site that Alex had just learned about from a researcher working on three-wattled bellbirds. Within minutes we were hearing the strange call(?) all around us and were treated to three individuals in the same scope field while a ferruginous pygmy-owl scolded us.

On the way up the mountain to Monteverde, the resident bat falcons were present. We closed the evening with an owling session that yielded great looks at a bare-shanked screech-owl after following a trail off the road to Monteverde Reserve.

The next day was spent entirely in the Monteverde Reserve. Alex found a perched resplendent quetzal male and showed it to all passersby, but the bird of the day was definitely the buff-fronted quail-dove that Nancy cut off at the pass. The bird walked across the path about 5 feet from Gordon's 2 feet. Mary even had time to take a picture. Hope that one turns out.

The evening's owling session included Alex's wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 7. After an hour or so, a mottled owl showed itself to the group.

The next morning was spent in the Santa Elena Reserve. It was a day for skulkers and soarers. A silvery-fronted tapaculo was seen well by Mary and Alex, not so well by Nancy and me. Then a zeledonia was called out by Alex and literally walked through our ranks, closing with an angry display of wing-fluttering on a log so close we had to drop our binoculars as we watched the sun play on it's tawny crest.

At a scenic overlook of Arenal Volcano, Alex suddenly shouted "Black hawk-eagle!" Actually there were two birds displaying in flight. I won't soon forget the words of one party member on being asked the current location of the hawk-eagles. "Middle of the volcano, in the puffy cloud."

On the ride down the mountain, the car suddenly stopped. Zone-tailed hawk soaring overhead. I would have dismissed this bird 10 times out of 10 as a turkey vulture, but thanks to this lesson, I spotted two more later in the trip.

A stop at Solimar Farm in Guanacaste province yielded several hard-to-get species, including Nutting's flycatcher, greenish elaenia, and banded wren. We invited a family to join us for a brief outing to the wetlands. The father was French, the mother from New Zealand, and they live in Costa Rica. Their four boys, ranging in age from approximately 5 to 12 years are all trilingual. I commented that perhaps they would grow up to be diplomats.

"Or terrorists!" was the father's retort.

On our arrival at Ecolodge outside of Arenal, we went for a late afternoon walk in the gardens. There were three birds in a bare tree and Alex at first pronounced them to be bay-headed tanagers, but then changed the call to rufous-winged tanager, a lifer for him! What a great punctuation mark to the day!

The next day was spent entirely on the trails of the hotel. The hotel maintains some terrific habitat for it's birding clientele. One of the first birds of the day was the second (and final) lifer for Alex on the trip, dull-mantled antbird. Alex sings, "New bird for meeee". And for us, of course.

Other worthy birds this day were rufous-browed tyrannulet, nightingale wren, song wren, and the elusive white-throated shrike-tanager (great looks all).

We closed the day stalking a fulvous-bellied antpitta. Alex heard the bird, positioned the group, and mimicked the call from varying positions on the trail. Gordon got a reasonable look early on and stood back to watch the others try. After about an hour of crouching and staring at the understory, the bird flew onto a branch for an "in-your-face" look for Nancy just a few feet away. Another exclamation point!

The next morning was slated for mop-up of missed species, but started with a surprise. A tiny hawk flew to a branch near the group. In a flash, Alex's scope was trained on the diminutive predator and its prey - a song wren. We watched a full scope view for about 40 minutes as the hawk proceeded with its breakfast. This was a bird that was previously unknown to the site (Alex maintains the site list).

In the meantime, a slaty-backed forest falcon posed and some group members tried to improve their looks at ocellated antbird. But bird of the day may have been the great looks the group had at a singing spectacled antpitta in the scope.

The next day was at La Selva OTS Station. We started fast with great and fasciated antshrikes outside the gate. Nancy found some snowy cotingas in a distant tree and at one point Alex coaxed a great tinamou to walk through the party.

In late afternoon, yellow-tailed oriole and pink-billed (Nicaraguan) seed-finch were found and then it got hectic. We were hoping for a look at the little tinamou that was calling maybe 15 feet away in the high grass when a white-throated crake sang out on the other side of us. Alex threw himself on the hand grenade and went for the almost-impossible-to-see crake, though the tinamou would have been a lifer for him. As we approached the crake, the tinamou decided it was a good idea to distract us by coming closer. Our heads were spinning, trying to get looks at whichever bird presented itself first when Orlando, a guide at La Selva who joined us for the fun of it, yelled "short-tailed nighthawk". A quick look over the shoulder and back to serious birding! We got a full (if dark) view of the crake as daylight expired. The tinamou will have to wait for another day.

Owling that night at a secret spot yielded our most up-close and personal ever encounter with an owl. Alex called to a distant vermiculated screech-owl in the dark. He saw one bird fly in, while I saw one fly past. We could hear the faint call in the dark and Alex said "Get ready". I thought he was kidding. The call sounded a mile away. Then he put the spotlight on the bird just 10 feet over our heads and 5 feet off the trail! This bird is a ventriloquist. The soft whimper still sounded a mile away. Alex talked to this bird for about 15 minutes, imitating the owl, great potoos, and other species. The bird never flinched and sometimes puffed itself up and angled its head to stare intimidatingly down at us with its deep yellow eyes. I thought Nancy would lose all control when the bird suddenly winked its left eye.

The following day shall go down as the great green macaw hunt. After finding a pinned down tawny-chested flycatcher at El Gavilan Hotel in the morning, we hired a boat for the one hour ride at full throttle to a site known to one of Alex friends who is closely involved with conservation efforts to save the great green. Alex told us it was a 20-minute walk from the landing to the macaw tree. 20 minutes when it's dry, maybe. But this day we found ourselves soon slogging through mud, trying to keep our shoes dry.

Once your shoes got submerged, you could go faster, because you no longer cared about staying clean (too late for that). But then it became a matter of making progress in the ever-deepening mud. The group got strung out as various members chose better or worse paths, and eventually Alex had to go back to try to help Mary, who had gone in quite deep. Gordon and Nancy had regained a dry patch of ground up ahead with the boat pilot and watched a local farmer walking with a horse toward Alex and Mary in the distance. Gordon offered a bet that Alex and Mary would return on the horse. No one was foolish enough to accept.

Technically, they would have won because only Mary was astride the horse when they caught up to us. Alex had told the farmer in a tearful voice "This lady came all the way from the United States to see your birds, and now she can't walk through the mud."

So we saw the macaws (10 in one tree in perfect light, with an eleventh calling from behind us). SPECTACULAR!!! And good news for conservation as there had previously been reported no more than six birds at this site.

Our day on Cerro de la Muerte (Ridge of Death) was one of extremes. Cold, high wind, low oxygen, and hot birding! Almost everything seen was new for the trip. Highlights were a huge mixed flock led by a buffy tuftedcheek, timberline wren, yellow-winged vireo, the incredibly beautiful flame-throated warbler (eat your hearts out, Blackburnians) and a high stakes game of hide-and-seek with a peg-billed finch in the low scrub of the paramo.

Day 12 was simply magic. The morning at Los Cusingos, the home of Alexander Skutch, the grand old gentleman of Costa Rican birding, was eye-popping. The riot of color in his front yard was without precedent in my birding life. Dr. Skutch places a banana on his window sill as he eats breakfast. The species I recall partaking were clay-colored robin, blue-gray tanager, Cherrie's (scarlet-rumped) tanager, speckled tanager (many!), buff-throated saltator, palm tanager, bay-headed tanager, golden-hooded tanager, and green honeycreeper. The nearby trees also gave good looks at male and female turquoise cotingas and a long-billed starthroat. If I die and heaven isn't all I expected, I'm going back to Los Cusingos.

Carara provided a fitting conclusion to the holiday. Consecutive owling sessions yielded a pair of black-and-white owls sharing a branch and a striped owl 10 feet from the car. Other good finds were american pygmy kingfisher, king vulture (seen through a hole in the canopy), scrub flycatcher, rufous-browed peppershrike, green shrike-vireo (illuminated in the canopy by Alex's trusty mirror), mangrove vireo, and scrub greenlet.

The total species for the trip was 485 birds in 15 full days. 16 were "heard only" birds. These are designated with an (H) on the list. Our thanks once again to Alex and his amazing ears. I'm thinking more than ever of moving to this wonderful country one day and eagerly anticipate our next trip with Alex.

Gordon Gover
Bridgewater, NJ
gdgover@hotmail.com