Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 6/7 - Carara and Tarcoles

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Subject: Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 6/7 - Carara and Tarcoles
From: "Paul Dodd" <>
Date: Sat, 26 Jan 2013 21:20:27 +1100
The following morning we packed up and prepared to head-off to our next (and
really last) destination, but first we decided to stop at a local butterfly
sanctuary. Some of the butterflies were incredible - especially the larger
Blue Morpho/Morpheus and the transparent Glasswings. Of great interest here,
though, were the columns of Leafcutter Ants (atta or acromyrmex sp) - these
ants cut leaves and flowers and take them back to their nests where they use
this vegetation to cultivate and grow a fungus that they then eat. Heading
back along the dirt road from the lodge to the highway, we stopped on the
roadside opposite the Arenal 1968 Volcano View and Lava Trails (a bit of a
tourist trap) to see the White-throated Magpie-Jays. The operators of the
Volcano View and Lave Trails must feed these birds because they are always
present at this spot.


For a bit of fun we had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in La Fortuna - I
couldn't tell any difference between the food that they served and the usual
food that we had been served throughout our trip. The drive from Arenal to
Hotel Villa Lapas near the township of Tarcoles on the Pacific coast was
quite spectacular in places as we wound our way through one of the mountain
ranges north of San Jose. We arrived at our hotel in the mid-afternoon - the
arrangement at this hotel was that all food and drinks, including alcohol,
was included in the price - which gave us a good excuse to indulge in some
cocktails that evening! Hotel Villa Lapas is a bit tired and is definitely
in need of renovation. Certainly some work was underway whilst we were
there, but a lot more needs to be done. Our opinion was that the hotel was
understaffed - not only that, but the various facilities and activites that
are advertised on the website were all in various states of disrepair.
Ultimately this did not really bother us as we just needed somewhere to eat
and sleep. The restaurant area has a patio that overlooks the Tarcolitos
("Little Tarcoles") River where we saw Bare-necked Tiger-herons, White Ibis,
Northern Waterthrush and more. We also had Scarlet Macaws roosting in trees
visible from our room - so you can't complain about that!


On the advice of a birding-aus subscriber, we had contacted Pat O'Donnell
(email:  blog:, an ex-pat American from New York who
married a Costa Rican and now lives near the capital, San Jose. Pat is a
good birder and an excellent guide. We arranged to meet Pat at 6am at our
hotel for a full day's birding. We started out by looking around the
property, as there are several trails - most notably the trail along the
creek at "the back" (the eastern end). Admittedly at this end of our trip it
was getting harder and harder to get new species, however we found three
that morning - Rufous-naped Wren - a boisterous wren that we found almost
outside our cabin, another one of the many, many treecreepers that we saw on
our trip - Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and high-up and very distant, a
flycatcher - Bright-rumped Attila. After an hour walking around, it was time
for a quick breakfast before heading for Carara National Park. Carara is
right on the Pacific coast and really only has two trails - the "river
trail" and the "forest trail" (we ended up walking them both). At Carara you
need to pay to access the park - $US10 per foreigner, and $US2 per local -
per day. We hadn't had to pay to access a park previously, but on reflection
most of the forest that we birded in was on private property - generally
belonging to the lodges that we were staying at.


The entrances and car parks for both trails in Carara are off the coastal
highway. For some reason neither entrance is signposted from the road, so it
takes local knowledge to find them. Someone has tied a CD to a tree on the
roadside to mark the river trail, which helps a little. The river trail is
flat and does periodically follow the Tarcolitos River. The main attraction
(bird-wise) of this trail is the  Royal Flycatcher - and whilst we heard
them on several times, we unfortunately did not get to see one. We did see
some other nice birds, though, including good close views of Boat-billed
Heron (near the water, of course), three becards - Cinnamon (which we'd seen
previously), White-winged and Rose-throated - both of which were new for us.
Another attraction of this trail is a hummingbird, the Blue-throated
Goldentail. These birds form "leks" with several males singing and
displaying, attempting to attract females - and when they are singing, they
are perched and reasonably straightforward to see. Being small birds,
though, it can be a challenge to find the twig that they are perched on.
This trail also provided some good flycatchers, other than the Royal of
course, with Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Streaked
Flycatcher all being new for us. We found a very tall fruiting tree - and it
was full of Chestnut-mandibled Toucans and Crested Guans (to name just two),
but the toucan we were missing was Fiery-billed Aracari - but no joy. In
fact this bird was probably one of our biggest dips for the trip, as they
are generally seen on the Pacific coast from Carara (and probably further
north) south - including the Osa Peninsula, and we had not seen one


Pat knew of a good seafood restaurant, so we headed there for lunch. The
restaurant is right on the beach, about 3km south of Tarcoles (500m south of
Outback Jacks), and I have to say that we found the food excellent. I had
Arroz con Mariscos (rice with seafood), which had large pieces of seafood,
including crab, and Ruth had Arroz con Camarones (rice with shrimp) - to
which the waiter strongly recommended that Ruth get the local tiny shrimp
("pinki") rather than the larger ones and Ruth was certainly not
disappointed. After lunch we had a quick look along the beach and found
Franklin's Gull, but also through the scope saw a Willet and several Ruddy
Turnstones. Afterwards we headed to the township of Tarcoles, stopping at a
pond along the way - finally we found a Roseate Spoonbill! Also here we saw
Wood Storks in the water rather than in flight. Heading a bit further to a
dryish area that Pat knew we found a Turquoise-browed Motmot (our final
motmot for the trip) and also managed to call a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl -
however the views were only fleeting as the owl flew in.


We then headed back to Carara and to the forest trail. Here we were were
after the various antbirds and managed to see a good selection, Black-hooded
Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, Dot-winged Antwren, the tiny
chicken-like Black-faced Ant-thrush and the usual Chestnut-backed Antbird.
We heard Streak-breasted Antpitta, but didn't manage to call it out or see
it. We also managed good views of one of the most nondescript birds in Costa
Rica the Thrush-like (or Northern) Schiffornis. This bird is a medium-sized
olivish-brown bird with absolutely no distinguishing features whatsoever -
and frankly, I hadn't actually expected to see this bird on the trip! Back
at the car park for this trail we saw Costa Rican Swifts flying overhead
and, most interestingly managed to see a Green Shrike-Vireo down very low.
Normally this is a bird that cannot be seen - it calls strongly from the
upper canopy, but is rarely sighted - we had incredibly good views of it.


Back to the hotel and it was time to say goodbye to Pat. The following day I
had arranged for a mangrove boat trip along the Tarcoles River for the
afternoon, and Costa Rica Gateway organised a guide, Johan
 for the day. The idea being that Johan could
help us find the birds we'd missed the day before with Pat, if any - plus be
our guide on the mangrove trip. Johan met us at 7:00am and we headed back to
Carara and to the river trail almost immediately. Once again we searched for
Royal Flycatchers, and once again heard them but didn't see any. We had
great views of some of the birds we'd seen briefly the previous day, such as
Northern Bentbill and some of the antbirds - Dot-winged Antwren and Barred
Antshrike in particular, and we saw our one and only quail-dove for the
trip, Ruddy Quail-Dove. After the river trail we headed immediately to the
forest trail, looking once again for birds we'd missed the previous day. Two
birds stand out, firstly the Blue-crowned Manakin, and secondly we had
wonderful views of a Great Tinamou. Johan told us of a "dry area" to the
north of Carara that would be worth a visit after lunch and before our boat
trip, to give us the opportunity to pick up some species that we would not
have had a chance to see yet. Stupidly on backing out of the car park at the
forest trail at Carara I scraped the rental car on a concrete pole that I
didn't see - thank goodness I had spent the extra money on full insurance
with no excess!


After lunch we headed to this dry area - basically the area limited by the
Tarcoles River to the south, the coastal highway (34) to the east, the Playa
Guacalillo (the beach) to the west and the highway (27) passing through
Pozon and then the unnumbered road to the beach on the north. This area is
primarily farmland, grassland, houses and properties with cultivated
gardens, a few resorts, some parkland and some clearly unused land. Access
is from a dirt road, to the west of the highway, north of Carara. First stop
along the dirt road was a row of flowering hibiscus bushes, where we were
looking for Cinnamon Hummingbird. We found this bird almost immediately.
Plenty of swallows were on the telegraph wires, and all were Barn Swallows
rather than the usual Blue and White or Rough-winged swallows in the wetter
areas. Also abundant in this area were Common Ground-doves (rather than the
usual Ruddy Ground-doves seen previously) and Inca Doves. We scanned the
wires for Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, but unfortunately found none. Stopping
at an intersection with several taller trees, Johan called Ferruginous
Pygmy-Owl, and to our delight one made an appearance and stayed visible, so
we had great views. We also found Nutting's Flycatcher and had distant
(scope) views of Costa Rica's equivalent to Australia's Bush Stone-curlew,
the Double-striped Thick-knee. We searched a messy area near a bridge for
Long-tailed Manakin but failed to find one - we did promise to return the
following day to look.


We headed back to Tarcoles and to the boat for our mangrove trip. Johan
suggested that since we'd seen all possible herons and similar birds that we
concentrate on the mangrove species and also finish our trip slightly
earlier so that we could head back to the forest trail at Carara as the sun
went down - to which we readily agreed. We had the entire boat to ourselves
for the mangrove cruise, so we could pretty much do as we pleased. We did
manage to add a couple of small sandpipers (Least and Western) to our list
from the sandbanks at the mouth of the river though. On the river near the
mouth, we picked up the egrets and herons, also White Ibis and a single
Roseate Spoonbill, but then we headed into the mangroves to look for the
specialties. One of the first mangrove species we found was Mangrove
Hummingbird - a bird we hadn't seen since Drake Bay. Pretty soon we found
the mangrove race of Yellow Warbler. This is an interesting bird - a yellow
warbler with an entirely chestnut-coloured head. This race (bryanti) is
resident in Costa Rica, and is commonly known as Mangrove Warbler (until
recently it was considered a separate species). Our next bird was Mangrove
Vireo - this is a tricky bird to see as they move around so much, nearby was
a new species for us, Prothonotary Warbler. Even though we had seen American
Pygmy Kingfisher, we got some good close views of this species again. Our
boatman said that he knew nesting trees for both Yellow-naped Parrot (a new
one for us) and for Scarlet Macaw - and he certainly did! We managed photos
of both species in their nesting holes - we also had good views of Mangrove
Black Hawk (generally considered conspecific with Common Black Hawk).


After the boat trip we headed back to the forest trail in Carara. Johan said
that he knew of a creek where the birds come in to drink at the end of the
day - so we headed there to wait. We were rewarded reasonably quickly with a
Dusky Antbird coming in to drink, followed by a Scaly-throated Leaftosser (a
new bird for us) not only drinking, but having a thorough bath for about 10
minutes! Finally, with little light left another treat - another new bird
coming in for a drink, another flycatcher - Golden-crowned Spadebill. On
that we left the creek and went deeper into the forest to look for
Streak-breasted Antpitta again - whilst we heard one, we could not get to
see it, and eventually the end of daylight defeated us. On heading out of
the forest we heard a Spectacled Owl - and tried to call it in with no luck.
Johan told us that there was one resident at our hotel and that we should
look for it there around 8pm.


Back at our hotel there was a large group of American birdwatchers doing
their end of day bird call. We eventually discovered that they were Audubon
shop employees on a trip organised by Costa Rica Gateway! Their leader was
Ernesto Carman - a guide recommended by a birding-aus subscriber,
unfortunately he was unavailable for the duration of our trip (presumably
because he was leading this one!) As we changed for dinner Ruth said that
she could hear a Spectacled Owl outside our door - sure enough, we went out
of our cabin to find that Ernesto and the American group leader had found
the owl in the tree directly outside our cabin. The bird flew off before we
could get a good look at it, but Ernesto, the American leader and another
local guide said they were going to look for it, and did we want to come?
Sure! So we walked through the gardens and eventually relocated the bird and
had great views of it!


Next morning, after a walk through the gardens with our big lenses - and
finally seeing a Steely-vented Hummingbird - one that we missed at Hotel
Bougainvillea on our first couple of days, we packed up and headed back to
the dirt road in the dry area that Johan had shown us. We saw the Cinnamon
Hummingbird again, but not closely - and we accidentally took a wrong turn
and ended up at a coastal lagoon where we found plenty of herons, White Ibis
and best of all, a small group of Roseate Spoonbills that posed for photos.
Back on the right road, we found our way to the messy area near the bridge
and after about 20 minutes ended up with great views, and photographs of a
male Long-tailed Manakin! What a bird to end our trip with, we thought.


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