Birding the Caribbean Lowlands in Costa Rica

“Toucán,” Niño, our driver and excellent spotter, announced excitedly. We had just gotten out of the bus and were walking along the road leading to the La Selva Biological Station.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

As I focused my binoculars on the bare branches that extended above the lush tropical rainforest, another Toucán flew in. The early morning sunlight shone on its 22 inch, buttery-yellow and chestnut-colored bill – a Chestnut-mandibled Toucán. They appeared to be surveying the environment and stayed long enough for us to get photos.

After a day at the Institute of Biological Diversity in Costa Rica’s central valley, our Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) group headed to Sarapiqui in the northeast part of Costa Rica in the Caribbean lowlands – a rainforest environment. We had spent the prior afternoon exploring the wildlife on the grounds of the Hotel La Quinta where we had spotted eight different species of flycatchers. We would spend the next two days at La Selva.

“Come here,” Carlos, our guide from Costa Rican Expeditions summoned. “This is a very good bird.” He had located a Cinnamon Woodpecker. Unlike the flashy bill of the Toucán, the woodpecker demonstrated the unique camouflage of tropical birds. Its rusty head and back was an exact match for the bark of the tree where it was sitting.

Parrots and a parakeet started flying in. Once they landed in the dense foliage, they were hard to spot. Then their heads would pop up – first a Red-fronted Parakeet, then a Brown-hooded Parrot. We also were able to observe Red-lored, White-crowned and Mealy Parrots as they feasted on fruit in the trees.

We finally worked our way down to the reserve entrance, retrieved our gear from the bus and met our La Selva guide, Lenin, a student in eco-tourism who was doing an internship at the biological station.

After crossing the swinging suspension bridge, our first find was a Rufous Motmot which blended into its surroundings so well that we would not have seen it if it hadn’t flown to another perch. Nearby we stopped to admire a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, with green and rusty feathers that were a perfect match for the surrounding foliage.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

As we came into a clearing Montezuma Oropendula’s were calling raucously and their golden tail feathers flashed as they made repeated flights to the tree where their pendulous nests hung like mesh stockings from the branches.

Montezuma Oropendula nests

Montezuma Oropendula nests

The meadow was a buzz of activity. We stopped to watch a Long-tailed Tyrant, its four inch black and white tail flying behind him as he sailed from tree to tree.

“Hear that sad-sounding whistle?” Carlos asked. “It is a Rufous Mourner.”

After leaving the clearing we entered a world of tall trees and large-leafed under-story, entwined with vines and an array of epiphytes growing from the moss-covered branches. The dense growth did not allow much sunlight to filter through.

As we walked along the trail, we stopped to locate the secretive Barred Antshrike. “It looks like a zebra,” commented Stephanie, ANS Senior Naturalist and leader of nine prior trips to Costa Rica. When it emerged from the shadows, it did indeed have black and white striping, which resembled the dappled light in the dense foliage. Its crown feathers stood up as if it had been started. And then as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared again into the bushes.

A Slaty-tailed Trogon sat like a sentinel on a branch just above eye level, its red breast being its only tell-tale sign.

As we traversed our way through the forest, we encountered Agouti, Coatimundi and Peccaries. The musty odor of the Peccaries permeated the air before we saw a small group of the wild pigs wandering between the trees and then disappear into the darkness.

Before we headed back to the La Quinta for lunch, we stopped to admire two of the tiny frogs that live in the Caribbean lowlands – Red-eyed Tree Frog and Strawberry Dart Frog.

After lunch, some of us returned to La Selva. Linen wanted to show us where a Vermiculated Screech Owl was roosting. We cautiously picked our way down a muddy slope to a point where we could get a good look. The owl opened a sleepy eye to gaze down on us before we headed back to the trail.

Digiscoped Vermiculated Screech Owl

Digiscoped Vermiculated Screech Owl

“There’s the fruit loops toucan,” Stephanie said as she pointed to the tops of some trees where two Keel-billed Toucans were perched. They looked jaunty and their multi-colored bills were as colorful as the cartoon caricature.

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Other sightings for the day included Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Cinnamon Becard, and White-colored Manakin.

Back at the La Quinta we relaxed in front of the fruit feeders while we watched the antics of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper and a plethora of Tanagers, including: Blue-gray, Palm, Golden-hooded and the spectacularly colored Passerinis with their scarlet rumps.

Birds at La Quinta fruit feeder

Birds at La Quinta fruit feeder

As dusk approached, we went searching for a Spectacled Owl. While we didn’t find the owl, we enjoyed watching a mother Three-toed Sloth as she balanced her baby on her stomach while she gathered fruit high in a tree over the road.

Three-toed Sloth with baby

Three-toed Sloth with baby

It was clear at 5:30 a.m. the next morning when we got up for the bird walk before breakfast. Our first bird of the morning was a Rufous-winged Woodpecker. “This is a very rare bird,” Charlie told us.

Before the skies clouded over, we also had seen a Crimson-collared Tanager and Black-cowled Oriole.

la-selva-rain By 6:30 it started to sprinkle off and on, and the air was heavy with moisture as we headed back to La Selva. As we were assembling, Niño had a find for us – a Snowy Cotinga, which looked like a miniature Snowy Owl perched in the tree tops. We hadn’t gone far in the reserve before it really started to rain. We whipped out our umbrellas and ponchos and continued through the woods.

Despite the on and off again rain showers, we were excited to find a Pied Puffbird. “Esta aquí,” Niño reported as he pointed to a tree limb a ways back from the trail.

“It’s in the scope,” Mark said after quickly setting up his scope so those around him could get a good look.

Other sightings for the morning included a Yellow Tyrannulet in a mixed flock, a Purple-crowned Fairy taking a bath in a puddle, an elusive Bay Wren with an explosive song, a Broad-billed Motmot, and another species of Puffbird – the White-whiskered.

After lunch and a siesta some of us traveled through the nearby countryside to explore the ponds and marsh beyond Pueblo Nuevo.

“Notice those tiny white flowers growing from the limbs of that tree over there,” Charlie told us after we gathered on the rocky dirt road. “They are orchids.” It was incredible to see them spilling over the edge of the branch.

A very wet White-tailed Kite watched for dinner from a snag.

A melodic song emerged from the reeds alongside the road. “Que canta?” Stephanie asked. It was an Olive-crowned Yellowthroat.

As it began to rain again, a flock of 25 Cattle Egrets flew in and landed on a dead tree next to one of the ponds. A Northern Jacana tip-toed on the lily pads nearby. We could hear a White-throated Crake and tried to call it in. Two different crakes answered the iPod’s call, but none appeared.

Howler Monkeys roared from the distance, sounding like the deep-throated bark of a dog.

As we passed through Pueblo Nuevo on our way back to the lodge as darkness set in, the people from the village were leaving church and walking home under their umbrellas. Most worked in the nearby pineapple fields and processing plants.

It had been an interesting three days exploring this part of Costa Rica. Tomorrow we would leave the tropical rainforest of the Caribbean lowlands and head for the mountains to experience another one of Costa Rica’s ecosystems.


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