The first and biggest surprise of the vacation came just a few minutes later. As Nancy was on a run to the ladies room and Alex and I were catching up and packing the car, I felt a hand pounding me on the shoulder in a friendly way. "Knowing" that it was Nancy, I continued packing without looking up. The pounding persisted and I thought, "Why is she tapping me so HARD?". But I continued talking to Alex and packing. The third time I looked up to ask what the problem was and saw... our old friend Guillermo Calero, whom we met last January while birding the road to the Monteverde Reserve. What a shocker! He had gotten our E-mail just the day before and came out just to say "Hello".
It turned out that he needed a ride back to San Jose, so he rode with us. Unbelievably, no one in the car saw a single bird on the drive from the airport. And then it happened. ROCK DOVE. Alright, trip bird! OK, so its not the most auspicious start, but a start it was. It can only get better!
We stopped at a small soda (eating establishment) just outside the city and picked up some drinks and snacks for the ride (about 2 hours) to the OTS. Birds #2 and 3 were turkey vulture and the ubiquitous great-tailed grackle. Things were picking up!
We continued the ride, enjoying our conversation with Alex, making plans for the upcoming trip in January, and of course, scanning for birds. Definitely the best bird seen on the ride to the OTS was the pair of collared aracaris (first lifebird!) seen flying across the road by Gordon and Alex. Nancy was victimized by being in the back seat in this case but later got good looks at this species at la Selva.
We made good time despite the potholes inflicted on the Costa Rican roads by Hurricane Mitch. The drive was punctuated by rapidly changing weather with bright sunshine interspersed with light mist and sporadic heavy downpours.
We arrived at the la Selva OTS at about 4 pm and decided that the only reasonable course of action was to bird until dark and then go to our hotel. We found the gatehouse unattended and so proceeded to the main gate where we parked beside the road and proceeded to look for birds.
After a discreet inquiry about bathroom facilities, Alex sent us down a path where we were greeted by the only mosquitoes we encountered at La Selva. We can only assume that they were giving Alex some sort of kickback for sending birders to their lair. Alex denies this.
Gray-headed Chachalaca were playing about in the trees. Noisy parrots were feeding and flying in pairs (that's how we can tell they're "pair-ots.") There were Mealy Parrots, Red-lored Parrots, Brown-hooded Parrots, White-crowned Parrots, Olive-throated Parakeets and Orange-chinned Parakeets. A showy Squirrel Cuckoo demanded a look. It was nice to see a bird that was an old friend from our last trip. We had really enjoyed the Squirrel Cuckoos in January.
The mosquito eradication squad was swirling about. Team members included lesser swallow-tailed swift, gray-rumped swift, barn swallow, and northern rough-winged swallow. The lesser swallow-tailed swift would turn out to be a significant entry on the trip list. It was the only bird of the trip that Alex never saw or heard. He did allow the identification, though, by pointing out that the greater swallow-tailed swift should be included in the field guide, in his opinion, only as an accidental.
Tanagers added bright color to the show. Old friends from the U.S, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers were there. Red-throated Ant-tanager was a welcome addition to the list, but the almost shockingly bright rump patch of the Passerini's tanager (recently split from scarlet-rumped tanager) was a real eye popper. We had two Saltators, Buff-throated and Grayish.
In an hour and 15 minutes we racked up a quick 62 birds including great looks at Montezuma's oropendola making it's otherworldly song with tail cocked high, golden-hooded tanager, both caciques, clay-colored robin (the national bird), black-throated wren, long-tailed tyrant, cinnamon becard, and black-cheeked woodpecker. Nancy liked the latter as it appears on the cover of Alexander Skutch's "A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm".
A very satisfying start. No real jaw-droppers in terms of rareness, but definitely worth eating late. As we birded the road near the gate, it seemed Alex knew everyone leaving the station for the day and introduced us to several of the la Selva guides as they bicycled home.
We retired to our hotel, cleaned up, and caught a late dinner while making plans for the next six days.
Alex and Gordon tried a little owling at the edge of Puerto Viejo, but without success. A heavy rainstorm moved through after we returned to our rooms. "Rain in the rain forest" as Alex likes to say.
Gordon awoke at 3:00 am feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. He just couldn't get back to sleep thinking about the feathered treasures which awaited us at dawn.
The morning dawned bright with the promise of untold lifebirds and la Selva lived up to its reputation. We were at the gate by 05:45. While we ate breakfast out of the cooler at the entrance gate, Nancy and Alex searched for the laughing falcon which was calling persistently. Gordon decided to concentrate on nourishment and look when the bird was located. This strategy paid off as the bird was found on an exposed perch just as he finished breakfast. Great look in the scope, what a stunning bird. We watched him for some time until we had all had good looks at him doing his laugh.
Alex and Gordon hunted down a yellow tyrannulet while Nancy made a bathroom run at the station. We were prepared to point the bird out when she rejoined us.
Nancy and Gordon amused themselves by watching several wheelbarrow- pushing workers crossing the suspension footbridge and whistling "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go". We whistled it, that is.
We also scored a double of the Woody Woodpecker types before leaving the parking lot - lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers. Crossing the bridge we found a small flock of dusky-faced tanagers and a great tinamou on the opposite riverbank. Good stuff.
In the morning, we got some nice birds on the trails, including a black-faced antthrush that Alex called in, a slaty-tailed trogon, and white-breasted wood-wren.
One bird seemed to stump Alex for a time, the first time I'd seen him hesitate so long on a call. It was a medium-sized bird with a weird chocolate-brown and white mottled plumage. It played hide-and-seek right below us as we stood on one of the many footbridges on the trails. Eventually he identified it as a female white-shouldered tanager going into adult plumage.
We also had great looks, our best ever, at golden-winged warbler. Then another bird made Alex hesitate and he said "I think maybe you know this bird better than me, Gordon". Well, having the Costa Rican endemics eliminated from the playing field, I immediately envisioned myself at Higbee Beach in Cape May, and said "Bay-breasted warbler". A brief look at the field guide and Alex concurred. That felt pretty good. As we walked out, my limited Spanish told me that he was describing the bird to other guides and that everybody agreed. I guess this is a pretty good bird at la Selva.
We watched a family group of black-faced grosbeaks eating in the open trees near the research facility and then spent a good long time observing shining honeycreepers and scarlet-thighed dacnises drinking water which had accumulated in the top of a palm tree during last night's storm.
We were haunted by the nearby cry of a broad-billed motmot. Unfortunately, this bird would be relegated to the "heard only" list. Then as we watched a mixed flock including collared aracaris, a variety of woodcreepers, and parrots, Alex suddenly snapped to attention. By this time, we could tell when something good was nearby by watching Alex. This was one of those times.
The Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant was a well earned magic moment. Alex heard its calls high in the canopy, and after a time began to suspect that there was a nest. It is not a showy bird, in fact it's the smallest passerine in Costa Rica, but Nancy liked it because it is such a little guy with a big, intimidating name. We had to hold our heads all the way back to watch for it. Nancy vows to work on developing her sternocleidomastoid muscles to relieve future "Canopy neck." Alex mimicked the Tyrant, the Tyrant answered. For twenty minutes our three heads tilted back with eyes aimed almost straight up to scan naked eye for a tiny flash of olive that would give it away. Then Alex announced "I think there's a nest". This seemed to be based simply on the pattern of where the calls were emanating from. Then he located the nest, a tiny hanging affair straight overhead. He put the scope on a small branch in front of the nest and said, "Look, the bird will appear in the scope." About 10 seconds later, it did!! and proceeded to eat a bug half the size of its head.
"Patience and luck," says Alex, "that's how you see in the jungle. Patience and luck." After forty minutes, patience gave way to luck. We were all grateful that our leisurely look was through the Swarovski scope's angled eyepiece. Almost every bird in La Selva this day was more impressive on looks alone, but our moment considering a harried parent wolfing down a snack measured up well against everything else that we saw.
On returning to the visitor center for lunch, we added a very beautiful bird to our growing list - green honeycreeper. There were probably six or seven females feeding at eye level in the low trees just outside the dining room. When we found a male, it was most satisfying. What a shocking shade of green to go with that black hood! A few minutes before noon Gordon decreed, "We have to get one more lifebird before lunch". Before the echo of the words could fade, a black-headed saltator called and posed a few feet away. Lunchtime!
The lunchroom brought back memories of our stay in the OTS station at Palo Verde in January. One menu per meal, serve yourself, unlimited cookies in a Tupperware container, lots of American college students at nearby tables taking a break from their field projects. All that was missing was our friend, Bob Hansen, with whom we travelled to Palo Verde.
After lunch, Orlando had asked if he could borrow Alex for a while to plan their Christmas count. Nancy was still suffering a touch of jet lag, so she napped in the dining area and dreamed of college students playing loud music. Gordon was relaxing inside too when Alex yelled "Migrating hawks". Well, not entirely right. There was an absolute river of migrating raptors passing at the rate of 100 birds per minute for about the next 30 minutes when their flight path finally drifted slowly out of sight.
Gordon estimates the composition of the flight to have been approximately:
Turkey vultures 70%
Swainson's hawks 25%
Black vultures 5%
The la Selva hawk watching team also detected 3 Northern harriers sprinkled in. Not great variety but very impressive nonetheless. We even managed to rouse Nancy from her reverie for a look.
The Christmas count planning session seemed like any such session, given Gordon's limited understanding of Spanish, with lots of talk about specific, presumably hard-to-get birds. Orlando and Joel admitted that Alex's Monteverde count always surpasses the la Selva count, with last year's score being 343 to 333. While they planned, Joel suddenly jumped up to point out a plain-colored tanager in the distant cecropia trees. Lifebird! This would be the only one we saw for the trip. Muchos gracias, Joel.
After lunch we were rewarded with good looks at a white-collared manakin which was located by following the loud wing-snaps. Then we followed the bird to a lek where two of them were "dancing", snapping their wings and flying three or four feet away time after time in rapid succession. Nancy dubbed them "popcorn birds". An apt name.
Then we heard a plaintive cry way in the distance. Gordon asked what it was. "Ocellated antbird" was the answer. After the demonstration with the black-faced antthrush this morning Gordon joked "Call him over".
So Alex mimicked the call. And the sound came closer. Alex called again, and the bird came closer, and so it continued until the bird was clearly very close and Alex said "Get ready. It's right there", indicating a little window in the foliage. We could see the movement, but before we could get a good look, Alex called again. And the bird launched itself straight at our heads!
The bird was literally an arm's length from our heads when it veered hard to the right, crossed the footpath, and alit to reveal that it possessed a spider with an abdomen the size of a golfball in its beak. It then proceeded to scold us while downing its tasty snack. Now what were we to do with all this adrenaline?
"Fruit Crows," says Alex. He hears them but doestn't see them. Once again, we'll have to work to see the bird. Nancy checks the colored plate in Skutch. Good. Nothing nondescript about these guys. There are several Fruit Crows flying overhead, always over the canopy, always out of view. We can hear the calls. Alex is trying to anticipate their movement so we might catch a look as they pass over an opening in the canopy. After half an hour of listening and trotting to promising patches of sky, Alex wants to get out in the open. He has been following their movements. "Let's try down here." He leads us down a narrow side path that ends in a pile of small branches and dead vegetation. Apparently a dumping path used by the wheelbarrow wielding clean up crew. Standing on the mulch, we are still in the forest, but at the edge of a clearing. Several hundred feet into the clearing is a large, dark, leafless tree. In the tree are three Fruit Crows. The throats look scarlet, not the purple color in the book. Alex assures us that the color is fine. It just changes depending on the lighting. Our Fruit Crows ar backlit by strong sunlight. "You have good luck," says Alex. "I have a friend who came to Costa Rica six times before he saw the Fruit Crows."
As we left the park, we stopped to bird the fields near the gate. Nancy found a black-cowled oriole, very pretty. A mourning warbler gave us a too-quick look, the little skulker. When we returned to the road, Alex spotted a slaty-backed forest falcon perched nearby. It was a rear view, but at least he turned his head to show us his white neck. Then we finished off the day by watching short-tailed nighthawks and common pauraques hunting. The pauraques were particularly fun to watch as they hunted like gigantic flycatchers from their spots just next to the road, flying up with their white wing-patches flashing and returning to their starting points. They were very nonchalant about our presence.
We arose bright and early, well, actually dark and early the next morning as we wanted to be at Virgen del Socorro for dawn. We were a little tardy, but it didn't seem to hurt the birding at all. We had breakfast out of the cooler on the road (should I call it a road?) at our birding site.
We got off to a fast start with a female green thorntail, male white-necked jacobin, and a male black-crested coquette perched for a scope shot. Gorgeous! We later saw two black-crested coquette males fighting.
We followed up with a GREAT look at Zeledon's tyrannulet. Alex was very excited at this. Clearly this bird is not accustomed to giving up so easily, but this guy just kept coming closer and closer until we had to drop our binoculars because he was too close to focus.
Alex called up another of the antbird family, this time it was an angry immaculate antbird. Nancy watched this bird scolding us for quite a long time. He sure was mad! A collared trogon perched in typical trogon style for good looks. A white-ruffed manakin gave a quick but definitive look. This is like picking cherries.
Then Alex got a teed-up black-headed tody-flycatcher in the scope. He said it was the best look he ever had at this bird. Gordon goes one step farther and called this the best look at ANY bird for the trip. It filled the field and was posed beautifully. Oh, to have photographic talent when something like this happens.
We continued racking up stunning birds with the tanagers well represented. Bay-headed, emerald, silver-throated, black-and-yellow, and crimson-collared all were marked "Present".
Our friends, the warblers were also very well represented here on this morning with Blackburnian, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, Tennessee, golden-winged, yellow, Wilson's, and both waterthrushes accounted for. Their tropical cousins were also here with tropical parula, slate-throted redstart, gray-crowned yellowthroat seen.
Alex pulled a tufted flycatcher out from the other side of the valley. This was a bird that Nancy missed by being second at the scope, but another came close for good looks a short time later.
A smoky brown woodpecker was a good find, though Gordon had trouble getting on this one and had to list this bird as a "probably seen". That's one to come back for!
All the time we were finding these great birds, we were serenaded by the haunting song of the nightingale wren. Try as we might, this skulker eluded our sight and went down as a "heard bird".
We continued down to the river and picked up torrent tyrannulet and American dipper. This bird is considered a different race than its North American counterpart. It was a little tricky finding him from our perch on the bridge as he dove in and out of the river, but we tracked the blighter down.
On the walk back up to the car, we found what may have been the bird of the trip. Alex told us that when Phoebe Snetsinger (world best lister at 8400+) visited Monteverde earlier this year, she met with him to inquire about the best places to find the two birds from the area that she had not yet seen: buff-breasted wood-quail and sooty-faced finch. He didn't hear whether she had found her target birds, but on the walk up, Alex suddenly heard a sooty-faced finch on the mountain face above us.
The finch did not give up his position easily as he moved in and out of the shadows, but we did get pretty good looks.
Alex then told us the story of an elderly birder who joined a tour and announced, "I'm only here for one thing. I want to see the lanceolated monklet." The tour leader was a little disappointed to hear this as this is one of the most elusive birds in Costa Rica, but Virgen del Socorro is one of the best places to see it, so there was at least a chance.
Well, it turned out that the birder's mobility was poor and when the bus got to Virgen, he decided that the trail was too difficult for him and stayed in the bus at the top of the "road". Of course, the group got down close to the river and located the monklet, but this is where the story gets good.
The guide had a radio and radioed the bus driver at the top of the hill. It seems that the driver was a strapping fellow and he scooped our monklet-seeker up and started walking down the hill. As the walk down is probably 20-30 minutes, you may think that there is a sad ending to this but no, he got his lanceolated monklet! Nancy and I allow as how we hope the driver got a very nice tip. I'm sure he did.
On the drive from Virgen del Socorro, we made a stop at a private home. The homeowner has a beautiful little house overlooking the valley with a large waterfall visible. The house is built on a steep hillside and is propped up by beams. She has set up hummingbird feeders, so we used her bathroom and watched the hummingbirds. We got a brown violet-ear and white-bellied mountain-gem here along with some of our old friends from the Monteverde area like violet sabrewing, magenta-throated woodstar, and green-crowned brilliant.
Perhaps most intriguing was the family pet, a huge brown and black tarantula which lives on a mobile made of driftwood. Actually, if we understood the lady, he has the run of the house. Nancy let the spider walk on her hand and looked very calm in doing so. On our return to the States she admitted that she was very nervous and was simply feigning her placid look to try to induce me into holding it. What am I? A rookie?
Our lunch stop had typical Costa Rican fare. We all went for the casado or combination plate. As we were getting ready to leave, a tour bus of American tourists were seated and offered their menu choice - chicken or meat. They wanted to know what kind of meat. Flashback to a 23-day bus tour of Europe. Everyone back on the bus!
When we arrived in the Carara area we went straight to Cabinas Carara, the little hotel where we had stayed in January. We had been wondering whether the proprietor, Juan Carlos, would remember us. Alex taught us how to ask "Do you remember us". When we pulled into the parking lot, I threw open the door and greeted "Rey Juan Carlos, como esta?"
When we crossed the patio to shake hands, Juan Carlos studied me a second and pronounced "Gor-don". I couldn't have been more delighted! I probably shouldn't have been since he probably remembered it only because we had joked about it since "gordo" means fat in Spanish. But delighted I was. Alex proceeded to chat up Juan Carlos and his partner Hugo, telling them that we were returning for tours in January and March and trying to get a good deal for rooms then. We had been joking that Alex was friends with everyone in Costa Rica, but it was here that Nancy noted, "If he's not friends with someone, he will be within five minutes." And it's true. Within five minutes, Alex had negotiated lodgings for us including a half-price room for him.
We unloaded the car, cleaned up a bit, and headed for the Tarcol lodge for a bit of shorebirding. A half-hour scanning the flats yielded about 25 new birds for the trip, though only one was a lifer for Gordon and Nancy, Wilson's plover. It felt good to be able to help with the ID's for a while. It's funny how shorebirding feels so difficult at home, but after a couple days of looking at unfamiliar tropical birds, it's a breeze.
When we had covered the mudflats, we went for walk in the nearby mangroves looking for birds whose name begin with the word "mangrove". Among our target birds were mangrove hummingbird, mangrove warbler, mangrove vireo, mangrove common black-hawk, mangrove cuckoo, and mangrove swallow.
Alex was periodically doing an imitation of a ferruginous pygmy-owl to get the passerines to approach and to hopefully elicit a response from another ferruginous.
Well, we walked through the muck and mire (Coincidentally, my attorneys names) and did get mangrove warbler, mangrove swallow and mangrove common black-hawk, along with a nice look at a prothonotary warbler.
All the while, Alex was periodically letting loose with the pygmy-owl imitation. Gordon had also been trying hisy hand at imitating the ferruginous as its monotonous whistle is an easy one to do. After 40 or so minutes of this and with bird activity low, we decided to give it just another 5 minutes.
Again the monotonous call was loosed on the mangroves, but with a difference. As Alex and Gordon locked eyes, they simultaneously realized that neither one of them was doing the call! And the smiles came to their faces. Now Nancy was in the middle of a story at this point and was not looking at them, so Gordon motioned to her to be quiet. She looked a little annoyed. After all she had been listening to their imitations for a long time now. And then her eyes grew wide as she too realized that neither of them was making the sound she was hearing.
In a flash, Alex had the little puffball in his Swarovski for all of us to look at. He sure looked mad as he whistled away at us.
We gave Nancy a pretty hard time about being the last to realize what was going on, but in the end she forgave us and proclaimed the angry little owl to be her favorite bird of the trip.
On the drive back to the hotel we picked up a nice look at a female black-headed trogon beside the road. Trogon number 5!
We feasted on Juan Carlos's delicious garlic fish and fries beside the swimming pool and then went for a dip. We amused ourselves telling jokes in the swimming pool. It seems there is a whole genre of "North American jokes" about the tourists who don't know about the tropics. Our favorite was the one about the North American who wanted to buy a parrot and teach it to talk. Well, it seems that some enterprising Costa Rican decided to take advantage of the poor fellow and sell him an owl instead, knowing that he wouldn't know the difference.
Some months later, the salesman bumped into our unsuspecting hero, and asked him if his "parrot" was talking yet. The North American responded, "No, he's not talking. But he's sure paying attention!"
After this story we just had to do a little owling after our swim.
We set out cruising the back streets of the small Pacific coast town of Tarcoles, right near our hotel. Alex drove the car while painting the trees with his handy dandy spotlight. I soon gave up the idea that I might be the one to spot the first owl as I could barely follow the beam of light, Alex moved it so fast. I did ask him how he hoped to spot an owl at this frenetic pace, but he just said, "Don't worry. I can smell them".
I had told Alex before we set out that I would very much like to see a spectacled owl, but he said this was most unlikely on the route we were taking tonight as the spectacled prefers deep forest and we were going to be in relatively open areas. He did allow as how we had a chance of finding a spectacled owl the next day in the Reserve, though.
We proceeded scanning the trees and querying the locals we encountered for reconnaissance ("Seen any lechuzas around here?"). We got a report from a non-birding local of an owl with stripes. Following the directions to the recent sighting we found nothing, but as we scanned the area in question a bit more deliberately than usual, I thought I heard a call in the distance, possibly an owl.
As my experience with Costa Rican owl calls was limited to the ferruginous pygmy-owl Alex had called in during the afternoon, I was not at all sure what I heard, so I asked Alex to turn off the car. We listened for about 60 seconds, shrugged and continued on.
About 2 minutes later the car lurched to a halt and I heard the words, "We have an owl!".
Did we ever!! We fairly exploded out of the car (quietly, of course) to see a gorgeous black-and-white owl perched at the top of a leafless tree. The ID was unmistakable to the neophyte even though the owl was illuminated only by the nearby streetlight, but as magnificent a sight as this was by ambient light it was magnified a hundredfold when illuminated by 400,000 candlepower of raw technology.
And then the bird called. The very call I had heard in the distance a few minutes earlier. After several minutes the bird flew across the road and over our heads to a more concealed position. We spent the better part of half an hour with Alex mimicking the call and trying to illuminate the bird in each of his new perches. Eventually Alex became convinced that there was a second black-and-white, so we went in pursuit of this individual.
After a few minutes, there was good news and bad news. The good news: we had found another owl, perched on a low exposed branch just about 50 feet from the road. The bad news: he was facing the wrong direction and there was barbed wire between us and him.
We could see clearly that this was a substantial owl, at least the size of the black-and-white with a dark-brown back turning rufous as it went down to his tail. The problem is that the field guide doesn't offer a picture of owls' backs and none of us was anxious to turn to the text for a more detailed description of owl plumages,lest we miss the critical field if the bird decided to fly.
So we stood and stared. And watched. And speculated. And stared some more.
CONTINUE TRIP REPORT