Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 2/7 - San Jose and Drake Bay

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Subject: Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 2/7 - San Jose and Drake Bay
From: "Paul Dodd" <>
Date: Sat, 26 Jan 2013 21:19:31 +1100
So now, onto the birding! Our first morning in Costa Rica was Christmas Day.
On looking from our hotel room balcony, the first bird that we positively
identified was the Costa Rican National Bird ? the Clay-coloured Robin (or
Clay-coloured Thrush as it is now known) ? it struck me as quite odd that a
country that has some particularly spectacular birds would have such a
plain, indeed drab bird as their national emblem. Apparently though, the
bird represents the soil, agriculture and farming that Costa Rica is known
for. In addition to the robin we saw birds that we would see throughout the
trip ? Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-collared
Sparrow and Great-tailed Grackle. Interestingly, Costa Rica doesn?t have any
corvids (they don?t come any further south than Mexico) and the grackles
occupy the ecological niche usually occupied by crows, ravens and jackdaws
in other countries. One other bird of note in the gardens of the Hotel
Bougainvillea was a Blue-crowned Motmot ? these birds are somewhat
reminiscent of bee-eaters, and have long racquet-tipped tails. The gardens
of Hotel Bougainvillea are noted for these birds ? so we were glad to see
one (although we did catch up with these birds later on in the trip too).
These gardens are also noted for Prevost?s Ground-sparrow ? however we did
not see any, and we did not see them at any other location in the trip.


Costa Rica Gateway had organised a visit for us to La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Since the visit included lunch, we drove there and arranged to be at the
gardens around lunchtime. The weather was terrible ? we had torrential rain
during the hour?s drive to the north of San Jose. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
is quite high on the slope of the Poás Volcano ? so it attracts a number of
the upper-elevation species. More importantly though, La Paz Waterfall
Gardens is renowned for hummingbirds and has a ?hummingbird garden? complete
with feeders. We saw twelve species of hummingbird, including the more
uncommon Magenta-throated Woodstar, Magnificent Hummingbird, Volcano
Hummingbird (the Poás Volcano race, simoni) and Green Thorntail as well as
the common, but spectacular, Violet Sabrewing and Green-crowned Brilliant.
Many of these species of hummingbird we did not see again throughout our
trip. Here we also met our first mammal of the trip, the racoon-like
White-nosed Coati. This one was particularly cheeky ? it would sneak up on
one of the hummingbird feeders and tilt it so that the sugar syrup leaked
out, which it would then lap up! One of the rangers saw it and shooed it
off, but the moment he was gone the coati would be back and up to its old
tricks! We saw this species quite often throughout our trip ? and most times
we noted that they were well adapted to humans, usually begging for or
attempting to steal food!


On Boxing Day we set off for Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. Within a short
time of leaving the hotel and getting onto the highway we encountered a
tollbooth. Oops! We had no colónes and we were totally committed to the lane
and the tollbooth. Fortunately they accepted US dollars, but gave us change
in the local currency. Tollbooths seemed to occur quite randomly along the
main east-west highway from San Jose ? just as we went through one, we
seemed to arrive at another. The prices varied from 100 colónes (about 20c)
to 700 colónes (about $1.40). Unfortunately at this time we encountered
bumper-to-bumper traffic and slowed to a crawl. All up, it probably took us
three hours to travel the 70km to the west coast. By the time we got to
Jaco, another 40km south, it was 2pm and definitely time for lunch! Jaco is
a very, very touristy town ? with the main street lined with bars, cafés,
restaurants and tourist information outlets, all of them attempting to sell
canopy zip-line tours to the backpackers and adventure tourists that found
themselves there. We managed to find a popular café whose specialty was fish
tacos ? but we definitely paid tourist prices for them!


We continued south along the coastal highway until Palmar, then headed south
along the Pan-American Highway (the twisty road that goes through the
central highlands). From here we headed far south to Chacarita ? which
consists of not much more than a service station. This is also the turn-off
for the Osa Peninsula as only another 50km further south gets you to the
Panama border. The road into the Osa Peninsula soon becomes dirt ? and what
small parts of it that are tarmacked are so badly potholed that you wonder
why they bother. By now it was dark (being ?winter? in Costa Rica, it was
dark by about 5pm or just after). The dirt road continues west along the
peninsula for about 50km ? then there is a turn-off to the north towards
Drake Bay. The distance may not be far (about 40km to Drake Bay from the
turn-off), but the road is worse and going becomes quite slow. To make
matters worse, there are five river crossings that need to be made ? and by
now it was very dark. Given my reputation for sinking 4WDs in rivers in
remote locations, I was somewhat worried ? especially when the GPS started
beeping to warn me of the first crossing. Fortunately by the light of the
headlights I could see that the river wasn?t much more than four inches
deep, so I wasn?t too worried. I?m not sure that I would like to attempt
this road during the wet season though! We finally arrived at the last river
crossing ? and this was a doozy! Unlike all the previous crossings, this one
must have been close to 50m wide, and there was no way I could see the depth
clearly from the shore. I could see that there were fresh wheel tracks
though, and figuratively (if not literally) holding my breath we headed out
across the river and successfully made it to the other side.


We eventually made it to our accommodation, Pirate?s Cove, at 7:30pm ? only
to be informed that we were very, very late! That being said, they rustled
up some food for us, for which we were glad. Suzanne, the manager, asked us
what activity we wanted to do the following day, to which we replied, ?Bird
watching!? in unison. She called the bird watching guide but no answer, so
she left him a message and told us that we?d need to meet at 5:30am the
following morning, and hopefully he will have received the message and would
be there. One good thing about the drive in after dark was that we saw our
first two night birds ? both nightjars ? a Common Pauraque close to the
start of the dirt road and many Lesser Nighthawks along the road, especially
closer to Drake Bay.


The following morning we were up around 5am (which pretty well became the
pattern throughout our trip). We met our guide, Gustavo Gutiérrez Calvo
 before 5:30am ? with time for a heart-starting cup of
coffee. Our bird watching was in the vicinity of the cabins and some tracks
in the area ? probably just as well that it wasn?t too far as the humidity
was incredible and I don?t think I?ve sweated so much since we were in
Borneo! This was a good opportunity to see some of the Pacific lowland
species and soon ended up with some good birds, including the vocal (but
hard to see) Riverside Wren, a Baird?s Trogon (our first trogon for the
trip) and our first of many antbirds, the relatively common Black-hooded
Antshrike. Gustavo, like most of our guides throughout our trip, didn?t use
playback, but rather imitated the birds by whistling. During this walk we
encountered our first sloth of the trip, a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth ?
what an interesting creature! They are the neotropical equivalent of
Australia?s Koala, almost entirely arboreal, only descending once a week to
defecate. Their top speed is only 0.25km/h ? and that?s when they?re in
danger! Sloth fur harbours a number of types of symbiotic algae and
cyanobacteria that provides them camouflage ? turning them almost green
during the rainy season.


The bird we most wanted to see however, and one that we ended up seeing on
this walk and on a few occasions subsequently in the Pacific south-west was
Scarlet Macaw ? what a spectacular bird! And what a tragedy that both this
and the Great Green Macaw almost became extinct in the wild because so many
were taken for the pet trade. Fortunately both species have made a comeback,
especially the Scarlet Macaw. To see such a large parrot with such a long
tail flying over in pairs and squawking raucously was an amazing sight.
Later we would see them roosting in trees, including just outside our cabin!


The following day we had booked a whale and dolphin watching trip with
Divine Dolphin ? mostly to have some hope of seeing seabirds, but
unfortunately the trip never got beyond Caño Island, so we never got deep
enough for any really interesting birds, however we did see the ubiquitous
Brown Booby, the less common Red-footed Booby, and both Laughing and
Franklin?s Gulls. Whilst we saw no whales (actually we knew we wouldn?t see
whales as it was the wrong season ? and this annoyed us slightly with the
tour operator as they wasted time pretending to ?look for whales? when both
they and we knew they weren?t there), we did see Pantropical Spotted
Dolphins and Bottlenosed Dolphins.


On the next day we arranged a mangrove boat trip on the Sierpe River and
specifically asked for Gustavo to be our guide. Now this trip was well worth
it! Gustavo brought his son, Isaac, along for the ride ? a typical
seven-year-old in that his attention span was not long, but he really did
enjoy being in the boat and seeing the birds. This started a little
mini-trend that we had of guides bringing family members on some of our
expeditions! Something to do with it being the Christmas/New Year period, I
imagine. On the mangrove trip we started to pick up some of the herons ?
Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron and Boat-billed Heron, as
well as Yellow-crowned Night-heron (the more common of the two Costa Rican
night-herons). We also saw the delightful Northern Jaçana and the rare
Southern Lapwing. The Sierpe River is one of the most reliable regions of
Costa Rica to see this species, but it can be found in other lowland areas ?
interestingly, this species had not been recorded in Costa Rica prior to
1997. We saw four of the six Costa Rican kingfishers (ultimately seeing five
of the six) ? with American Pygmy Kingfisher being the least common.
Additionally Gustavo knew of a roost for a Common Potoo, a bird that is
reminiscent of Australia?s Tawny Frogmouth (in fact they belong to the same
order, caprimulgiformes, but different families within that order) ? we
found the bird at its roost, in a palm tree, on the bank of the river.
Nearby we encountered Scarlet Macaws gorging themselves on almonds from a
tree that had been planted specifically to attract them! The tour was
supposed to end at lunchtime back at our accommodation, but Gustavo asked if
we?d like to keep going (to which we agreed immediately!) We lunched at a
café in the village of Sierpe and continued the mangrove tour for another
couple of hours afterwards, adding some great birds like Red-crowned and
Golden-naped Woodpeckers, both south-western Costa Rican specialties. On
this tour we also encountered our first monkeys ? a small group of the
diminutive Central American Squirrel-monkey. We saw a pair of Crab-eating
Raccoons (Mangrove Raccoons) in the mangroves and later on, under a bridge
crossing the river, we found many, many Long-nosed Bats hanging on. The
mangroves and river were great for reptiles too ? with the ubiquitous Green
Iguanas basking in the sun, American Crocodiles on the river banks,
Spectacled Cayman in the smaller creeks, a Northern Annulated Boa (Mangrove
Boa) curled tightly around a branch of a mangrove, Black River Turtles and
Common Basilisks (Jesus Christ Lizards) also on the bank.


The following day was our last day in Drake Bay, so in the morning we
arranged for another bird watching walk with Gustavo ? this time slightly
more into the forest where he had seen some good birds a couple of days
earlier. Notable birds we saw were an additional three species of trogon ?
Slaty-tailed, Gartered (Northern Violaceous) and Black-throated ? meaning
that we had managed to see all four species of trogon possible on the Osa
Peninsula. We also caught up with our fifth species of kingfisher, Ringed;
all three honeycreepers ? Red-legged, Green and Shining; a range of
hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Bronzy Hermit, Long-billed
Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit, Violet-headed Hummingbird and Charming
Hummingbird. We also managed to add to our antbirds with Chestnut-backed
Antbird and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. This morning we saw a second
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, we also had a treat and saw several of the
endangered Geoffroy?s Spider Monkey deeper in the forest (in actual fact, by
the time our trip ended, we had seen all four species of Costa Rican
monkey). Gustavo picked up a couple of pebbles and clicked them together
over and over again, funnily enough after a while we heard a response! This
provided one of the real highlights of the walk, when Orange-collared
Manakins are displaying they make a sound just like two pebbles clicking
together ? and they responded to Gustavo and put on a great display for us!


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