Costa Rica, Day 4: A Visit to the Rainforest

Thick-billed Seed-finch

The second part of our full-day outing with Olivier Esquivel consisted of a visit to the rainforest which promised fantastic, colorful birds like motmots, tanagers, euphonias and toucans. After leaving Santa Rosa National Park we drove east along Highway 917 and gradually gained elevation as we climbed the slope of what I took to be one of the two volcanos that our next destination was nestled between. The road started out paved, but eventually turned into a some sort of hard-packed earthen trail embedded with rocks. This slowed us down, but gave us time to take in the views of the fields and wind turbines outside the van’s windows with the volcanoes looming in the background. An Eastern Meadowlark was a familiar sight in the grassy fields; like the Red-winged Blackbird, I knew it lived in Costa Rica year-round, but it still seemed strange to see one so far from “home”.

Ollie stopped when he noticed a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat perching on a wire fence. A warbler related to the Common Yellowthroats of North America, I had first seen this species with Luis Ku at the Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Sanctuary. It was nice to see a much closer one!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

We also saw a male Yellow-faced Grassquit fly out of the grass and land on a stone wall next to a building, providing much better views than I’d had of the birds in Mexico. We stopped the van, but the bird flew off before I could open the window.

We arrived at Curubanda a short time later. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but then I didn’t know what I was expecting. There was a large building on the left-hand side of the road with a small pond and open fields behind it; I later learned this was the restaurant. A cluster of buildings was tucked behind a mucky dooryard on the other side of the road, and several fenced-off garden areas led up a slope to a grassy field on the right and a large forest area on the left. This was the rainforest in which we would spend the next few hours.

Curubanda Lodge (click to enlarge)

Curubanda Lodge is one of many community tourism projects throughout Costa Rica designed to provide visitors with an authentic taste of Costa Rican food, life and hospitality. The owners of this particular lodge invite guests to feel “like a cowboy between two volcanoes” which is a rare experience among the luxury beach resorts of the nearby Pacific coast. Guests can go horse-back riding, swim beneath waterfalls, hike the forested slopes of Rincon de la Vieja, or explore the active mud pools bubbling at its base. Simple and rustic, it was a far cry from our own all-inclusive resort, but it boasted a list of over 260 species of some of the most coveted birds of the rainforest.

Curubanda Lodge (click to enlarge)

The first birds we noticed upon our arrival were a House Wren perched on one of the buildings and a couple of Mangrove and Northern Rough-winged Swallows flying over the road. Ollie took us to the edge of a ravine just inside the forest; a thin trickle of water ran through the muddy bottom, and a medium-sized tree had fallen along its edge. A Buff-rumped Warbler was making its way along the tree trunk, flashing the bright buffy patch in its tail as it scuttled along. With its drab body, cream-coloured supercilium, and preference for wooded streams, it looked and acted like a waterthrush. This bird was listed at no. 149 on my list.

After getting the warbler we emerged out into the open and started waking up the slope through what appeared to be the backyard of the lodge. There were quite a few birds here, including a Gray-capped Flycatcher perching in a tree. This was not a bird I was expecting to see, at no. 123 on my list, and I hadn’t bothered to study it before the trip (too many flycatchers; too little time!), so I had to rely on Ollie to identify it for me. Similar in appearance to the Tropical Kingbird and Social Flycatcher, it has a gray head and dark mask and the white on its face is restricted to the throat – it lacks the broad white stripe extending beyond the eye. Fortunately it sat still long enough to study it and get some photos.

Gray-capped Flycatcher

Most of the other birds we saw were not so nearly obliging. Ollie pointed out a tiny yellowish bird bouncing around a small ornamental tree; I recognized it as a Common Tody Flycatcher. It was much cuter than I had expected with bright yellow underparts, black upper parts, yellow edging on its wings, and a yellow eye set in a black face. I followed it to another tree but it would not sit still long enough for a photo.

Ollie also called out when he noticed a bird flying across the clearing. I saw it land on a tree trunk; given the size and the way it landed I thought it was a woodpecker, but Ollie said it was a woodcreeper – it turns out that the woodcreepers of the tropics look and act more like woodpeckers than Brown Creepers, though they don’t hammer into the wood to get their food. This one was a deep, dark red with fine barring, and once Ollie told me it was a Northern Barred Woodcreeper I recognized it from all the studying I had done in preparation for the trip. This was no. 115 on my list of targeted species.

We headed into the forest, where the owners had a small garden in a large opening up the slope. Ollie headed for the garden where we immediately found two honeycreeper species, a male Green Honeycreeper – a lifer for me – and a male Red-legged Honeycreeper, a species I had seen in Mexico. A female Green Honeycreeper was present as well, and I thought she was just as pretty as the male – she was a dark lime green colour, while the male was aqua with a black mask. Then Ollie changed his mind, and instead of heading into the garden he made a path through the ankle-high vegetation and found a narrow dirt trail beneath the trees. He told us to be careful, and to walk exactly where he walked, and not long after we saw our first and only army ant swarm of the trip flowing back and forth across the path in a series of switchbacks.

The army ants of Costa Rica (six different species) occur in low-elevation rainforests, deciduous forests, and cloud forests to about 6,560 feet (2,000 metres). They are carnivorous, feeding on a variety of arthropods including wasps and other ants. During the night they roost together in large clusters called bivouacs inside hollow trees or logs; at dawn, they emerge in long columns and march until the next night’s bivouac is chosen. This moving carpet of ants flushes a variety of insects from the forest floor as it marches along, providing prey for the various birds and insects that follow the column of army ants. Finding an army ant swarm attended by these birds is one of the most thrilling experiences of the rainforest, and it wasn’t long before Ollie spotted a male Spotted Antbird moving low through the vegetation. Eventually the Spotted Antbird flew up into the open and posed on a branch for me – and my camera refused to focus on it! It seemed as though I had all the time in the world to set up the shot, but the low light inside the forest combined with the vine-like branches surrounding the bird and the bright sunlight in the background made shooting difficult. So here it is, probably one of the worst photos I’ve ever posted, but since it is a lifer I am leaving it in anyway!

Spotted Antbird

Ollie also identified a Dusky Antbird, a dark gray bird with two wing bars, and whistled repeatedly to draw the attention of a Barred Antshrike singing somewhere in the dense forest. We had no luck seeing this species, and after listening to both the bird and Ollie whistle back and forth throughout most of the afternoon I decided to add it to my life list. This was a species I was hoping to see in particular – males appear to be dressed in old-fashioned black-and-white prison stripes with a small crest, while females are a cinnamon-rufous colour with the black and white streaking confined solely to the face. Overhead, a pair of Crested Guans – large, dark land birds related to the Great Curassow we had seen in Santa Rosa – were making their way through the branches above us, looking like arboreal cormorants with a red flap of skin beneath the chin.

We left the forest interior and walked down the slope along the edge of the trees, seeing another Green Honeycreeper, a Plain-capped Starthroat that confused us at first because the white post-ocular stripe appeared to be a spot at first, a Paltry Tyrannulet which has no wing bars but rather yellowish edging on the wings, a distant Keel-billed Toucan which I could not find in my camera’s viewfinder before it flew off, and other birds I could not get my bins on in time to identify them. So far the rainforest was much birdier than the dry forest of Santa Rosa, and I was loving it!

A variety of butterflies were fluttering in the vegetation despite the dark clouds overhead, and Ollie pointed out a couple of Glasswing Butterflies which had transparent wings – try as I might, I couldn’t get a photo of them, and I didn’t have time to stop for very long to try to get a shot. This gorgeous blue butterfly helped make up for missing the Glasswing Butterfly, and I later identified it as a Deep-blue Eyed-Metalmark (Mesosemia asa asa) which belongs to Family Riodinidae – one of the few butterflies I’d seen that wasn’t a Brushfoot (Family Nymphalidae).

Deep-blue Eyed-Metalmark

At the base of the slope we found some small seedeaters and euphonias in the open area close to the buildings – Yellow-throated Euphonias, White-collared Seedeaters, Variable Seedeaters, and Thick-billed Seed-finches. I photographed what I thought was a Variable Seedeater, but the thick bill and straight culmen clearly distinguished it as a Thick-billed Seed-finch. The male Pacific race Variable Seedeaters look virtually identically to the male Thick-billed Seed-finch, so the bill shape is the only way to tell them apart. Both were lifers for me; Variable Seedeater was ranked as no. 36 on my list, while Thick-billed Seed-finch was ranked as no. 242!

Thick-billed Seed-finch

At the bottom of the slope we re-entered the forest and made our way to the garden where we hoped to see some hummingbirds. The Heliconia flowers there formed huge clumps in the middle of the clearing; the largest stand was above my head, while smaller ones were only knee-high. Still, we did see some hummingbirds! The first was the rather drab-looking Scaly-breasted Hummingbird perching on a branch out in the open. Males and females appear similar: greenish overall with a grayish-buff coloured belly, white tips on the outer tail feathers, a white spot behind each eye, and pink on the basal half of the lower mandible. Despite its name its breast is not any more scaly in appearance than the breasts of other hummingbird species.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

The garden is a regular haunt for the large, spectacular Violet Sabrewing, and this was one of our chief targets. The largest species of hummingbird in Middle America, its range extends from southern Mexico south to western Panama, where it can be found in montane forests, forest edges, second growth forests, banana plantations, and flower gardens at elevations of 1,500-2,400 metres in Costa Rica (though it does often descend to lower elevations outside of the breeding season). The male is primarily purple, with dark green and black wings and white tips on the outer tail feathers. The long, decurved bill is black.

The Violet Sabrewing was known to feed on the Heliconia flowers in the garden, so we got comfortable on the path and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually the hummingbird showed up, feeding on the flowers on the far side of the clump. It moved into view briefly, then took off again. After waiting some more it returned, and perched in a small opening with only parts of the bird in view. When it started feeding again, it again chose the side opposite of where we were standing. When it disappeared a second time, Ollie started scanning the tree branches overhead to see if it was perching there. At one point we saw it flying around behind us, being chased by a feisty Rufous-tailed Hummingbird which then sat on a small branch as though defending its territory. I never did get a good look at the whole Violet Sabrewing, but the large size and deep amethyst colour were enough to add it to my life list.

After watching the hummingbirds we crossed the clearing and ascended the slope inside the trees there, Ollie once again reminding us to be careful where we stepped. We saw a Stripe-breasted Wren and a pair of White-breasted Wood-Wrens flitting close to the ground in the dense vegetation, a Bright-rumped Attila foraging higher up, and startled a Common Pauraque sitting on the ground right in the middle of the path. The nightjar flew off into the vegetation and was lost to view. Ollie’s goal was the Tody Motmot, one of the more difficult motmots to see in Costa Rica as its range is restricted to a narrow belt of elevation on the Guanacaste cordillera in northern Costa Rica – four small dots on the range map in my field guide. The smallest of the six motmots in Costa Rica, it is the only one that lacks both the tail rackets and a dark spot on the breast; it is also the only one that two white stripes extending across the face. Given its elusive nature, I wasn’t expecting to find it, but then Ollie stopped on the trail in front of me and pointed it out sitting on a branch. It was completely motionless, just like the other motmots we had seen.

Tody Motmot

Given its narrow range and uncommon status, I was surprised it ranked as low on my list as it did – at no. 193 on my list, it was reported on 1.5% of all complete checklists. This is tied with Least Grebe, and ranked lower than Stub-tailed Spadebill (no. 207), Paltry Tyrannulet (no. 213) and Thick-billed Seed-Finch (no. 242). Clearly a lot of birders have made special trips to see the bird – Ollie told me that sometimes it takes him an hour to find it, though it only took a few minutes once we started up the slope!

We got two more “heard only” birds in that part of the forest – a Lesser Greenlet which we heard repeatedly from several feet above us out along the edge, and a Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant which sounded frustratingly close – perhaps only five feet above our heads but deeper in the foliage. Ollie whistled their songs repeatedly but both of these tiny birds refused to show themselves. The Lesser Greenlet is a member of the vireo family, a small, plain bird that is relatively common in Guanacaste. At no. 16 on my list, I’m surprised this was the only one we came across in our outings.

At that point Doran and I were getting hot and tired from tramping up the uneven slope in the thick humidity, but I was reluctant to break for lunch as there were so many birds around and the weather was so cooperative – although overcast, it hadn’t rained at all. When I finally mentioned I needed a break Ollie was surprised that it was after 3:00 – I’m guessing he would have kept cheerfully heading up the slope if I hadn’t mentioned we were getting hungry. We returned to the restaurant to eat another wonderfully authentic Costa Rican meal, but even on our way down we were distracted by birds – first by a Yellow-bellied Elaenia with its clear yellow belly and raised crest instantly identifiable, and then by a Piratic Flycatcher sitting out in the open.

Piratic Flycatcher

It sprinkled while we were eating lunch, but neither Ollie nor I could sit still at the table and eat.

Curubanda Lodge

Curubanda Lodge

I got up when I saw a small brown bird fly in and land in the mucky yard across the road. I thought it might be a shorebird, grabbed my camera, and started taking pictures. I wasn’t sure what it was until Ollie told me it was a juvenile Northern Jacana, a specialized long-toed marsh bird which is able to walk on top of the aquatic plants where it forages for food. Despite the gloom created by the rain clouds overhead, this was my best view of one yet.

Northern Jacana (juvenile)

Ollie grew animated when a flock of parakeets flew in and landed in a tree across the road. He said they were Olive-throated Parakeets, a bird that was slightly out of range. I tried to focus on one but couldn’t pick any up through the binoculars – it’s amazing how completely these green birds disappear into the green leaves once they settle in. Later they flew out of the trees and across the road, toward us, and I still had trouble picking up the pertinent field marks, which seemed to consist solely of the olive throat and bold white eye-ring. We tried tracking them as they flew behind the restaurant, but they must have kept going. This wasn’t a lifer for me, as I’d seen them flying over in Mexico with Luis, but I had equally as poor a view this time as I did in Mexico!

Ollie also managed to pick up a Dusky-capped Flycatcher that perched briefly in a tree; I had studied this species as it closely resembles other members of the genus Myiarchus, such as the Great Crested Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and Brown Crested Flycatcher. The members of this group are difficult to distinguish, and while I thought I had a handle on the much-darker cap of the Dusky-capped Flycatcher, the views of this bird were so short that I doubted I would have been able to identify it on my own. I labelled that one as a “BVD” bird – better views desired.

The Red-billed Pigeon perching at the very top of a tree across the street stayed put long enough to get a good look, though I wished it would fly down onto the ground like most of the Rock Pigeons I’ve ever seen. It was too far away to photograph.

A Golden-hooded Tanager flew across the road; I saw enough of the hood to identify it, though that bird also got put on my “BVD” list. A group of Palm Tanagers followed, and they at least were cooperative enough to perch in the bare branches of the tree right behind the restaurant. Palm Tanagers are probably the plainest members of the large and diverse tanager family, and more resemble a female Brown-headed Cowbird than the colourful Yellow-winged Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, or other Thraupis species; the Palm Tanager is all brownish-gray with dark wings, though some individuals appear yellowish-brown.

After that flurry of activity we went in to finish our lunch. Ollie asked if we wanted to check one more spot; though I was still fairly tired – it was about 4:00 and we’d been going since 5:30 – I said sure, as I was hesitant to pass up the chance to see any more lifers. He led us down the road and through a gate onto a muddy horse trail. The main attraction of this trail was the Montezuma Oropendola nesting colony. We had already seen and heard a few Montezuma Oropendolas in the rainforest earlier, though Ollie said not to worry about trying to track them down for a better look – now I knew why. Several woven-grass nests dangled from the tops of the trees, and at least two dozen large birds were flying in and out. Despite their colourful appearance – including the orange-tipped bill, rich, russet-coloured back, yellow-edged tail, and bare patch of skin below the eye – these crow-sized birds are considered to be a member of the blackbird family, and are indeed the largest icterid in the world. Males are larger than females and a conspicuous pink wattle at the base of the throat.

Montezuma Oropendola

We continued on, and the muddy track turned into a path through a grassy area dotted with trees. We saw more Montezuma Oropendolas flying around, male and female Passerini’s Tanagers, and several parrots and parakeets. Ollie pointed out a much-smaller Steely-vented Hummingbird perching in a tree. We managed to see three Red-lored Parrots, two White-crowned Parrots and two Crimson-fronted Parakeets when Ollie put the scope on them. The only ones I was able to photograph were the parakeets, and even they were a good distance away.

Crimson-fronted Parakeets

Two Brown Jays flew in and landed at the top of a tall tree, and a few minutes later we caught a glimpse of a large woodpecker flying along the ridge behind the trees. It landed among the foliage of a tree about halfway up, and we were too far to run over and try to get a glimpse of it through the leaves. It strongly resembled our Pileated Woodpeckers back home; however, Costa Rica has two similar-looking birds that differ only by the patterns on the head. The Pale-billed Woodpecker has a black body with a pair of white stripes running up the back to the top of the neck and a completely red head and crest; the Lineated Woodpecker appears the same, except the face is dark with the white stripe continuing all the way to the base of the bill. It, too, has a red crest. Then the bird dropped lower down on the tree trunk, and I got enough of a look at its head to identify it as the Lineated Woodpecker.

View of the Volcano

The view of the volcano was quite lovely, and I grabbed a few shots before we turned around and headed back the way we came.

View of the Volcano

We saw two new birds on the way back to the van, both in the area by the oropendola nests. One was a large cowbird perching on a high branch right near the nests; it was a Giant Cowbird, a species that, like the familiar Brown-headed Cowbird of North America, is a brood parasite. However, unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird which lays its eggs the nests of more than 200 species, the Giant Cowbird is known to lay eggs in the nests of only ten, all of which are either jays or icterids (blackbirds) that build pendulous nests in colonies. Host species include the Turquoise Jay, Green Jay, five oropendola species (including Montezuma Oropendola), Spot-breasted Oriole, Streak-backed Oriole and two cacique species.

The other species was much smaller, a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. It had a long, pale bill that was slightly decurved, rufous-brown upper-parts, a white throat, and a mixture of brown and creamy white streaking on the head, nape, and belly. Unlike other woodcreepers, the Streak-headed Woodcreeper is often found in open areas. This was our second one in the rainforest and our third one of the day. Fortunately it paused long enough to get a photo – the only photo I’ve taken of any woodcreeper species to date!

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

By the time we were done it was 4:35 pm. I didn’t want to leave, but I was pleasantly worn out from all the walking we had done, and my head was swimming with all the new life birds I had seen – 56 so far that day! I only got photos of a fraction of them, and was disappointed that I missed getting photos of some of the more spectacular species: Keel-billed Toucan, Violet Sabrewing, and the two honeycreepers among them.

We stopped twice on our way back to the resort, first to check out a Spider Monkey in a tree next to the road. This was our third monkey species that day:

Spider Monkey

The second stop was for my last life bird of the day, a Stripe-headed Sparrow sitting on a wire fence! Ollie noticed it, and took this picture as there was too much vegetation for me to get a clear shot from my seat in the back. This bird was no. 13 on my list of targets, and having been reported on 15% of all checklists, I was surprised it took this long to find one – and that I never did see another one on our trip.

Stripe-headed Sparrow

It was close to 5:30 by the time we we returned to the resort, making it a full 12-hour day out in the field! I was worried about not having the stamina for such a long outing, but only the sweltering humidity made it arduous, as the trails themselves weren’t steep and fairly easy to walk. The rainforest at Curubanda Lodge was truly astonishing, and well worth the visit. I was sad to say goodbye to Ollie, for he was an excellent guide, and fun to hang out with. If you are ever in Guanacaste and are looking to hire a bird guide, I can’t recommend him or his tour company, Natural Discovery, highly enough, especially if you have never been to Costa Rica and need help getting started.

Doran and I celebrated our successful outing with a great dinner at one of the resort’s two reservation-only restaurants, the Oriental, which turned out to be amazing. I was so tired I could barely stay awake during dinner, and sure enough I fell asleep almost as soon as we returned to our room and my head hit the pillow. I’m sure I was already dreaming of a return trip to the fantastic and marvelous rainforest.

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One thought on “Costa Rica, Day 4: A Visit to the Rainforest

  1. Wow, now that was a birdy day! I will definitely keep Curubanda Lodge in mind on my next trip to Costa Rica, maybe even stay there. (Reading these posts is making me feel like that next trip should be sooner rather than later 🙂 Montezuma Oropendola was one of my wishlist birds on my previous trip that I sadly missed out on. The Pacific coast wasn’t really a good place to find it.

    Lovely shot of the cobalt-blue butterfly.

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