So we watched and looked at the field guide and speculated some more, all the while keeping the bird both literally and figuratively in the spotlight. And then the owl turned its head just enough to look down squarely in our eyes.
This was probably the moment of moments in the entire trip.
They must have heard the laughter and congratulations in Puntarenas. The owl stayed put and periodically looked at us. We amused ourselves by seeing who could guess what the bird would have said the first time he gazed upon us if he could talk.
"Do you think you idiots can figure out what am I now?"
"Can you see my fieldmark?"
"Put out that damned spotlight. I'm trying to catch a mouse here."
Eventually the bird flew and we proceeded on the owl prowl.
Next, Alex conjured up a Pacific screech-owl by calling. At first we only heard the bird and followed the sound closer and closer. Then Alex called and with no response apparent from the bird quietly announced, "The bird is here". It seems that the bird heard Alex and flew to a perch in the tree above us. As it was quite dark and the bird flew silently, the only way Alex knew that it was there was that the bird had brushed a single leaf as it landed. Alex detected the movement of that leaf on the windless night and knew what it meant. We were soon staring into the deep yellow eyes of our quarry.
To punctuate the evening, Alex wound up by finding two ferruginous pygmy-owls perched side-by-side in a large tree in someone's front yard.
The day's total:
3 ferruginous pygmy-owls
2 black-and-white owls
2 Pacific screech-owls
1 spectacled owl
This eclipsed the Gover family record of 3 unidentified (probably long-eared) owls seen at South Cape May Meadows in one day. Did it ever! An absolutely magical night.
The next day we were up before dawn to be at the Rio Tarcoles bridge. We decided to bird near the bridge until 6:00, then grab a quick breakfast at the Restaurant Cocodrilo. We got a nice look at a riverside wren before the breakfast bell rang.
After breakfast we headed for the main trail along the river. What a difference ten months make. The dry, dusty path we remembered was totally transformed into a mud pit. We immediately heard the loud, comical cries of the gray-necked wood-rail as we entered, but were not able to sight them, so we continued down the path.
We found some nice birds along here, including our old friend the orange-collared manakin, white-whiskered puffbird, and royal flycatcher. The latter was a particular treat, though we didn't see him flair his crest.
Eventually, mud turned to swamp and we were forced to abandon the rest of the trail. Alex was kind of disappointed, saying that this hurt our chances for several hummingbirds, but there really was no choice. The trail was just too muddy. I believe this was a souvenir left by Hurricane Mitch as well.
Alex decided the best course of action was to walk the trails near the ranger station. We all tried to clean the mud from our shoes, but this was largely an exercise in futility. We removed our shoes for the short ride to the station.
Just after we pulled into the station, we met Mike Rudd, a photojournalist working on an article for an adventure magazine. He inquired as to whether we had been seeing any wildlife. We filled him in on sightings and conditions on the main trail and invited him to join us for a bit of birding.
A white-necked puffbird was perched high and exposed just at the trailhead. This has to be a good omen.
Mike immediately impressed us with his intuition for birding etiquette. Perhaps a hundred feet onto the trail, we encountered a chestnut-mandibled toucan busily feeding directly above the trail ahead of us. Mike had specifically asked us about the possibility of seeing toucans, so we waved him to the front for a photo op. He said "I don't want to scare him away." We reassured him that we would not be upset if he did and that he could probably approach pretty closely if he liked. So he shot his fill of photographs. Alex attempted to help by redirecting some sunlight onto the bird with his mirror. I hope those shots came out well, Mike.
Alex was hearing golden-naped woodpecker next but it was Mike who found the bird. What a look, just overhead working on a dead tree.
Nancy found an old friend from Belle Plain State Forest, worm-eating warbler. That's a nice one.
Then at a footbridge we hit a mixed feeding flock and picked up good looks at black-bellied wren, tawny-crowned greenlet, and red-capped manakin. Nancy was so moved by the beauty of the red-capped that the tears actually came to her eyes. Then Alex heard a blue-crowned manakin call. He found a female close by, but this was less than satisfying when compared to the picture of the male, so we continued to look for the male. After a few minutes, Nancy said, "Hey what's this black bird with the little blue cap?" Nice going, Nancy.
A Baird's trogon sat still for good looks as well as a black-throated trogon. That makes 7 trogons!
One of the most unassuming of the manakins, a thrushlike manakin, gave us to-die-for looks, too close to focus. And a black-tailed flycatcher stopped in to show his impersonation of an American redstart, flairing his tail as he hunted insects. A couple more good ones!
We closed our time on the trails by hunting down a singing little hermit. We had to kneel to see the little guy singing his heart out on a low perch.
We retired to Cabinas Carara for another helping of Juan Carlos's garlic fish. Mike joined us. I think we amused the waiter, who is Juan Carlos's teenage son. Gordon told Alex to ask that instead of the usual tourist portion of french fries we receive a plate like Juan Carlos eats. (We had seen his dinner last night). This got a pretty good laugh, and we all got double portions of fish with triple french fries.
After lunch we returned to the ranger station to plug a few holes on the list, picking up golden-crowned spadebill, russet antshrike, and Cherrie's tanager, the Atlantic version of the scarlet-rumped.
We returned to Tarcol Lodge and met a birding guide who was a friend of Alex's. He was guiding a pair of enthusiastic beginning birders from Washington, D.C. So we scoped the mudflats, traded stories and sightings, and sat drinking fruit juice served by the lodge owner. Now this how to bird in the tropics!
We only picked up two new birds for the trip here, tricolored heron and short-billed dowitcher. We were entertained, however, by a willet who was busily dismembering a crab, while ruddy turnstones lurked nearby waiting for the scraps.
Alex needed to drive the 45 minutes to Puntarenas this night because it was the 13th birthday of his daughter, Daniela, who is staying with his friend Jack Stephens in Washington state. We decided to go along with him to save him the drive back to Tarcoles, plus we wanted to see Tammy and their daughters, Vicky and Alexa, again.
We were greeted a couple blocks away from Alex's in-laws' house by an escort consisting of Vicky, several cousins and neighborhood friends. It felt like a tickertape parade. We met Tammy's family and chatted a little. Tammy complimented how much Gordon's Spanish had improved. No big trick there as he spoke practically none the last time we met. We thought that her English had improved markedly as well.
Tammy showed us the handmade wooden boxes she has been making. They all have a nature motif. Gordon decided to buy one for Nancy and was a little surprised when she chose the orange-collared manakin over the scarlet macaw or black-crested coquette. We went to our hotel, cleaned up a bit, and went out the the familia Villegas for a light supper. It was quite a lot of fun trading stories and teaching each other English and Spanish. Vicky's English is unbelievable for a seven-year-old. She has the cutest little voice and pronounces her words very precisely. Alexa danced in her chair to the music in the restaurant.
Afterwards, we went for ice cream and amusements (Puntarenas is a beach resort). A teenaged boy stopped by the table to talk. We joked, "Another friend of Alex's". Turns out he was a friend of Vicky and Alexa. Tammy joked that the girls can have boyfriends now since they are 7 and 3. But in a few more years, no more boyfriends! Not until they're 30 or 40 years old.
We thought we were going to have a chance to pick up some useful Spanish phrases when we saw that Seinfeld was on the TV, but it was transmitted in English. Oh, well.
In the morning, we took a quick drive to the shore to try to pick up a few gulls and terns before heading for Monteverde, nothing special here but a few more birds for our burgeoning trip list. We had hoped to see 250 species in this short vacation, but by now we were hovering around the 300 mark and 350 looked within reach.
The drive to Guacimal was uneventful. We took about 45 minutes birding the deciduous forest in Guacimal before continuing up the mountain to Monteverde. We found olive sparrow and rose-throated becard here.
On the drive up, Alex suddenly shouted "Lesser ground-cuckoos!" It was too late for Gordon. Actually, he saw them fly into cover, but not a good enough look to count. Nancy did have a good look though. This time the back seat worked better. Gordon scanned the road edges the rest of the way up the mountain, but no more ground-cuckoos. Manana.
We stopped for white-throated magpie-jays a little later. Actually we were looking for the bat falcon the hangs around the area, but it was likely to be our last chance for the magpie-jays, so we ticked them off. This is a bird Nancy and Gordon can't agree on. Nancy loves their appearance and their strange call. She believes this sound was used in Jurassic Park for the spitting dinosaur who eats the computer programmer ("Newman!"). Gordon, on the other hand, while admitting their beauty, finds their persistent scolding to be about as endearing to a birder as the call of a blue jay, starling, or Canada goose. Different strokes.
As we continued up, Alex caught sight of a gray hawk soaring. We stopped as this was our first look at this bird. We watched the raptor soaring directly over our heads, going in and out of the mist that gives the cloud forest its name. Kind of surreal.
For efficiency, Alex had called ahead and his housekeeper, Lucretia, had a delicious homemade lunch waiting for us when we arrived. Chicken for Gordon, rice and beans for Nancy, everybody's happy.
After lunch we took a little siesta while Alex got the car serviced. Then it was off to the Finca Ecologica (Ecological Farm) for more birding. We spent perhaps 90 minutes picking up several of the species that could be missed - orange-billed nightingale-thrush, orange-bellied trogon, Chiriqui quail-dove, white-throated robin, and long-tailed manakin. We also spent some time talking with Greibin, a young guide we hired for a morning back in January. He really liked our owling story as told by Alex.
We met a group of birders from Great Britain who were travelling with yet another of Alex's guiding buddies. It sounded like they were having a pretty good trip, but there seemed to be a little longing when we mentioned that we had seen about 320 species in 4 days.
As we wound down at the visitor center in the Finca Ecologica, we met a woman who said that she was having the most disappointing vacation, that she hadn't seen any wildlife, and that she was finding everything worth doing was very expensive. We had to say that we were having exactly the opposite experience and invited her to join us in the morning. At least we could guarantee that she see some wildlife.
We went to dinner with Izzy (our new companion) at a seafood restaurant recommended by Debbie Harris, an American guide working for one of the hotels in Santa Elena. Gordon got a bit of a surprise when his "chicken" seemed a bit on the chewy side. We called the waiter over and asked what it was.
"Pulpo" was the answer.
"Pulpo". Octopus. YUCCKKKK.
It really wasn't that bad, but the thought of eating something with suction cups was too much, besides, Gordon really wanted the chicken. The look on Gordon's face made it clear that this was not what he had hoped for and the waiter brought an order of fried potatoes as an apology while the chicken was cooked. Now he's figuring out what Gordon likes, at least. The chicken was delicious, but Gordon had to request a cease-fire on octopus jokes for the duration of the meal.
Our taxi in the morning was a little late due to mechanical problems, but we were still at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve at first light. The road really suffered in the storm and there were some very muddy patches that Alex's car clearly could not have negotiated.
As we arrived at the gate a male resplendent quetzal flew by. That's trogon number 8 and another good omen for our last full day in Costa Rica.
We birded the area right near the entrance and were rewarded with a very good look at slaty-backed nightingale-thrush. This bird made Gordon emotional because he had missed it in January despite several minutes of concentrating on the forest floor where Alex had pointed it out to Nancy. All that hard work and now here it is right on the path. We ordered breakfast and continued birding until it was ready. Then we ate outdoors at the picnic tables while hummingbirds visited the feeders there.
After breakfast, it was back to the trails, where we hooked up with another guide, Ricardo Guindon, and his group of two, Jeanne Fossani and Michelle (last name unknown). Ricardo's father is one of the Quakers who founded Monteverde. Jeanne and Michelle are teachers at E.A.R.T.H. (Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda) a school located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
We had a great time with them. Gordon tried to be funny with Michelle by quietly saying' "Nice binoculars". (She was also using Zeiss 7x42's). She said, "Oh, I just borrowed them from my friend".
Well, now Gordon felt bad. Someone was using his binoculars-of-choice as a backup. Actually, he comforted himself by deciding that Jeanne's preference for her Swarovskis was probably based more on comfort than on quality of image.
Anyway, the combining of our two small groups had a synergistic effect. More eyes find more birds, and the interplay between Alex and Ricardo added to the fun between birds. It was really interesting when Ricardo's father came up the trail. He's a hardy-looking seventyish man who was wearing farmer dungarees. When we first heard him speak it was in Spanish and sounded typically Costa Rican, but then he switched to English and the accent was like that you'd expect of an old farmer somewhere in mid-America. A very amusing combination.
Nancy asked Ricardo, whose English and Spanish are both obviously fluent, which language he was more comfortable with. He looked a little perplexed and said, "You know, people ask me that question all the time. But either way, it's just talking."
Early on we got good looks at several azure-hooded jays. A brown-billed scythebill sang persistently and from close range but was difficult to find. I think most people got a look at it, but Gordon had to settle for seeing the leaves in front of it moving.
Then a cry of excitement, "Barred Parakeets".
This was in fact the first time these birds had been seen in the Reserve in two years. They are generally a higher-elevation species (6500 -10,000 ft.). There was great celebration by Alex and Ricardo as we jockeyed for a good look at them high in the trees over our heads. There were probably between 6 and 10 birds in the group.
Jeanne particularly wanted to see a Zeledonia. It is a little gray bird with a rusty cap that feeds on the ground. Since it is usually under the undergrowth, it is not easy to see. Alex heard it off the path. Jeanne, Michelle, and Nancy climbed up on the raised side of the path to consider the underbrush with him. They didn't hear a Zeledonia, but they knew that if you look where Alex looks, you see good stuff. Again and again they stood for five and ten minute stretches looking at the low plants. Somewhere under there was a little grey bird that they would be pleased to see. Most of these stretches ended in following a more cooperative bird that required just a few dozen feet of position change for a satifying look. While they watched some moist ferns, Grey-breasted Wood Wrens began to goabsolutely berserk. Alex and Ricardo felt that there must be a snake nearby for them to be so excited. Alex moved off to the right to get a better angle to see what they were complaining about. Jeanne and Michele followed. Nancy alone stayed to watch the motionless ferns. A Zeledonia had been under there. Where was it now? As the wrens scolded, a little grey bird with a rusty cap popped up on a large fern. It didn't perch. It stood precariously on the broad fern with its wings flitting busily to keep it balanced. Then it dropped back out of sight. Nancy turned and walked back to the group on the path, wondering how to say, "I SAW IT!" without gloating. Luck and patience.
The two times we've walked up to the continental divide at Monteverde, the weather has been remarkably different in a space of a hundred yards. The Pacific side is drizzly while the Atlantic said is totally socked-in and raining. We'll have to take another datapoint in January.
Up over the divide we were treated to great looks at a hungry black-and-yellow silky-flycatcher feeding 15 feet over our heads. Then Alex heard another "find" in the foliage. "Silvery-fronted tapaculo!"
This bird is renowned for its secretive nature. In fact, we heard someone earlier in the day say that to see this bird you have to step on it. So obviously, we worked a good long while on it as well. And even though it sounded no more than 5 or 6 feet away, the only one of our group of seven who managed a look was Alex. Ah, well...at least the song is pretty.
At this point Ricardo scored a major coup. At least from Gordon's point of view. All through the trip, whenever a green hermit (hummingbird) would show up, Gordon would be looking in the wrong direction. And by the time he would look, the bird would be gone. This happened so frequently (maybe 8-10 times) that it became a running joke. So when Ricardo yelled "Green hermit", Gordon was all set to be disappointed. But the bird just stayed and hovered 20 feet away as if to make up for all the teasing that had been endured. Thank you, Ricardo. Thank you, Senor ermitano verde.
Then a slaty flowerpiercer was found high overhead. Alex was working on another bird further down the trail, so Ricardo scored two lifebirds in a row. We cautioned Alex that Ricardo was threatening his position as our leader. Ricardo seemed very pleased at this thought.
But Alex quickly reaffirmed his status by detecting a group of sooty-capped brush-finches. Mixed in was a fiery-throated hummingbird toward the lower part of his range. As we made our way back to the entrance a female resplendent quetzal. This made a fitting punctuation mark to a fantastic trip.
We stopped birding about 1:30 this day and spent the rest of our time preparing for our return trip in January, making hotel reservations, etc.
Since no new birds were seen from this time, our total of 363 birds were observed in less than five full days. Of these 19 were "heard only" birds. These are designated with an (H) on the list. Our thanks to Alexander Villegas and we look forward to seeing even more in January!
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