Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 3/7 - Savegre

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Subject: Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 3/7 - Savegre
From: "Paul Dodd" <>
Date: Sat, 26 Jan 2013 21:19:45 +1100
Once we?d completed our morning bird walk, we packed up and headed off ?
towards our next destination, the cloud forests of Savegre. The drive out of
the Osa Peninsula was much more pleasant during daylight, and the river
crossings seemed so much less daunting. Our next lodge ? the Savegre Hotel,
Natural Reserve and Spa ? is on the slope of Costa Rica?s highest mountain,
Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death). Whilst the peak is over 3400m, the
lodge itself is at a much more comfortable 2200m ? still high enough to be
shrouded in cloud for a good proportion of the time. The route involves
driving the Pan-American Highway (also known as the Inter-American Highway).
This road is narrow and very twisty in places ? there are overtaking lanes
from time-to-time, generally favouring south-bound traffic (we were
north-bound), and overtaking on double-yellow lines and blind corners is the
norm here. This is the main truck route north and south and seeing large
semi-trailers passing each other or approaching each other on a twisty
narrow road sometimes causes you to catch your breath! A considerable part
of the journey was at 2800m-3000m along this road, and that adds the element
of cloud or fog, just in case it wasn?t already interesting enough!


Gustavo had told us to keep a look out for a restaurant ? Vista de la Valle
as it was good for hummingbirds and Orange-bellied Trogon, but we could not
find it. Later we wondered if he meant the Restaurant La Georgina, which is
famous for its hummingbird feeders that attract the high-elevation
Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Anyway, we arrived at Savegre mid-afternoon and
enjoyed a pre-dinner walk around the cultivated gardens with our cameras.
Volcano Hummingbirds, Green Violetear and White-throated Mountain-gem are
common at the feeders and around the flowers, with Scintillant Hummingbird
being present, but less common. The most interesting bird of this afternoon,
though, was the Slaty Flower-piercer. This bird lacks the long bill of a
hummingbird, but still requires nectar from flowers, so it stabs the flower
at its base and drinks the nectar through the hole ? later on we also saw
hummingbirds drinking nectar from the holes made by these birds. On arriving
at the hotel we saw that the place was full of birdwatchers ? people with
binoculars around their necks, some carrying spotting scopes, most with
cameras, and we realised that this was one of the key destinations in Costa
Rica for birding ? and this explained the trouble that we had trying to get
a guide for this area. Before arriving, the hotel had told me by email that
they had no guides available, despite me sending pleading emails! On
arrival, however, we were told that they could fit us in with another group
for a bird-watching session the following morning ? and that we were to meet
at 5:30am at reception.


The following morning we were up and ready. Whilst the hotel does not start
providing breakfast until much later in the morning, they do provide an urn
of coffee and some biscuits from about 5:15am on the balcony, and this was
well received. At 5:30am a Toyota Landcruiser ? troop carrier ? arrived and
four Americans from Oregon and Ruth and I hopped aboard. We were driven 2km
up the road and unloaded, where we met our guide, Carlos Serrano Obando
 He told us that before breakfast we would
look for one of the signature birds of Costa Rica, the Resplendent Quetzel.
Soon we were joined by other birding groups until ultimately there must have
been seven or eight guides with close to 30 bird watchers. The quetzels had
not been seen the previous day, so there was some ?pressure? on the guides
to find them ? the various guides staked out favourite trees and remained in
mobile phone contact with each other. Eventually after hanging around in the
chilly morning air (it was a good thing that we brought fleecy tops) word
went around that a bird had been found ? just a couple of hundred metres
from where we were ? up a very, very steep track. Anyway, after a bit of a
climb we made it to some trees on the edge of the forest ? surprisingly not
the avocado trees that the birds prefer ? and there was a female quetzal.
Within a minute or two she flew out of the tree and to a tree a couple of
metres back, and without warning a glorious male flew out and joined her,
sitting reasonably out in the open for brilliant viewing and photographs.
The Resplendent Quetzel is a spectacular bird (hence its name) of the trogon
family. Males have a green ?fluffy? head and a yellow bill, with the green
extending around the bird?s upper breast and wings with an incredible
contrasting red for the lower breast and belly. Feathers from the bird?s
back extend into long green streamers for at least twice the length of the
bird. The female is somewhat more drab, lacking both the red and the
streamers. These birds do not like direct sunshine, so only appear in the
open in the early mornings ? after which they retreat to the shade of the
forest. The glorious colour is partly pigmentation and partly iridescence,
which gives the birds a sheen, even in dim light. The bird is awe-inspiring
? to the point that one woman in our group, when seeing the bird for the
first time, wept! We spent an hour with these birds, watching them and
photographing them ? what a start to the day!


Whilst watching the quetzels we scored a good bonus bird, a covey of Spotted
Wood-quail walked underneath the quetzels? tree and continued to forage for
insects along the forest edge. On leaving the property that the quetzels
were on we crossed the stream that follows the main trail down the mountain
and I noticed a small grey bird hopping on the rocks ? a Torrent Tyrannulet
? a small flycatcher that specialises in feeding near fast moving mountain
streams.  We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then with Carlos our
guide, headed up a steep hill to one of the trails ? La Quebrada (the creek
trail). This trail winds its way through primary rainforest, and for a
proportion of the time follows (and crosses) a bubbling creek. This was to
be our main opportunity to see the temperate highland birds, and we were not
disappointed, with birds like Mountain Elaenia, Tufted Flycatcher, the
uncommon Ochraceous Pewee, Black-faced Solitaire, Mountain Robin (Thrush),
Sooty Robin (Thrush), the appropriately named Yellow-thighed Finch,
Large-footed Finch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and many others. One of the birds
we were after was the Emerald Toucanet, which we missed on this morning, but
caught up with several over the next day or so. We heard a Costa Rican
Pygmy-owl calling strongly, but could not locate this uncommon species for a
view. We saw a Golden-olive Woodpecker, a mountain specialty, and many
woodcreepers. Our walk ended around lunchtime and we headed back to the
hotel. I spoke to Carlos about hiring him for the next couple of days ? and
found out that he was available that afternoon, the following evening and
the morning of our final day, so I locked that in with him.


After lunch we went with Carlos to the area near the peak of Cerro de la
Muerte ? this area is full of radio masts, and fenced-off buildings. The
forest is quite different at this altitude ? it is páramo, an alpine tundra,
consisting of stunted shrubs and other low vegetation. This habitat is above
the treeline, but below the snowline (not that there?s any snow at these
latitudes). On clear mornings it is possible to see both the Caribbean and
Pacific Ocean from this peak ? in addition it is possible to see south to
Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. On the day we were there,
whilst the summit was clear, there was lower cloud obscuring the views. We
parked near a fenced area, and within seconds we had Volcano Junco hopping
out onto the track and around our feet. This is one of the key species at
this altitude, and is only found in an incredibly small number of spots in
Costa Rica. Our next target was the Timberline Wren ? which was somewhat
more challenging as it prefers the cover of the vegetation, but we managed
to see it quite well. Walking at this altitude (3451m) is tiring and you
need to be conscious of altitude sickness ? if you start to feel
lightheaded, or have hangover-like symptoms you need to head for lower
altitudes immediately. The air at this altitude is thin and crisp ? the sun
can be harsh because of the thin air and sunscreen is essential.


After seeing our target species, we headed down from the summit and headed a
few kilometres to the west to the Restaurant La Georgina. This restaurant
has hummingbird feeders visible from the windows of the restaurant, and is a
well-known site for Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Unfortunately to see the
fiery throat colour the sunlight needs to catch the bird at exactly the
right angle, so we ended up with a poor view of a medium-sized greenish-blue
hummingbird. The blue crown of this bird is also diagnostic and we certainly
saw that. Whilst this restaurant is well-known for this bird and they are
usually present in numbers, we saw only one. We came back a couple of days
later also and still had the same view of just one bird.


That evening we celebrated New Year?s Eve by having a spa and massage, which
was incredibly inexpensive by Australian standards. After dinner we
adjourned to the bar and caught up with an English (non-birding) couple we
had met at Drake Bay. Being the serious party animals we are when birding,
we were in bed by about 9:30pm! The following day we walked up the steep
hill to La Quebrada trail by ourselves and caught up with a number of
species we missed the previous day, including Emerald Toucanet. We saw a
spectacular Swallow-tailed Kite flying over the valley ? a common enough
bird in the south-eastern United States, but a first for us. After lunch we
walked the waterfall trail, following the mountain stream that follows the
road down the mountain, and found two target species we had here ? American
Dipper and Louisiana Waterthrush. We had seen American Dipper in Washington
last year, but not good views. Here we saw a pair of them and observed them
feeding (?dipping?) for about half an hour. The Louisiana Waterthrush was
much shyer but patience was the key and we ended up seeing that bird for
about 15 minutes.


We arranged to meet Carlos at his house, higher up the mountain, that
evening. He had a Dusky Nightjar that had perched on a fencepost along the
road for the last few nights. Sure enough, within minutes of arriving we saw
the bird! Carlos had asked his wife to join us ? although she ended up
carrying the scope ? as he said that he had a Bare-shanked Screech-Owl
nearby. We walked through an area of forest attached to one of the lodges
higher up the mountain ? with Carlos calling the owl periodically.
Ultimately the owl started calling back, but quietly. I assumed that the owl
was distant and we were unlikely to see it, but no! Carlos told me that
these owls don?t open their bills when calling and are not particularly
loud. After another 20 minutes or so, with the owl?s calling getting
slightly louder, we eventually located it on a visible horizontal branch
about 20m from us. We hadn?t really counted on seeing that many night birds,
but we were doing pretty well nonetheless!

Carlos was available again early the following morning ? but only up to 8am,
so we met at his house at 6am to look for Buffy-crowned Wood-partridges
(that he got on his property occasionally). When we arrived he had been
looking for about half an hour, without luck ? but we managed to call them
in ? but unfortunately for us, whilst close, we never managed to see them ?
just hear them. In the time we had left with Carlos we managed to see
Ochraeous Wren, a bird we had heard but not seen, had great views of
Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher and picked up a few other species that we?d
missed in the previous couple of days. We had hoped to see Silver-throated
Jay and Golden-browed Chlorophonia, but alas it was not to be.


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