BEST OF COSTA RICA TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of Costa Rica: Day 1 Our Best of Costa Rica tour begins this evening at San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city situated in the Central Valley, where we will stay overnight.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 2 We will start the day in the attractive grounds of our hotel where, amongst the Great-tailed Grackles, Palm and Blue-grey Tanagers, Blue-and-white Swallows, Clay-colored Thrushes, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Great Kiskadees, we will seek out more localised specialities such as the smart Rufous-backed Wren (split from Rufous-naped), the noisy Finsch’s Parakeet (split from Crimson-fronted), Greyish Saltator and, with a little luck, our first Lesson’s Motmots (split from Blue-crowned). Various winter visitors from North America such as Tennessee and American Yellow Warblers and Baltimore Orioles are also likely here.
We will then make our way into the Cordillera de Talamanca just to the south of the city where we will stay for two nights at a lodge in a secluded valley below Cerro de la Muerte or the ‘Mountain of Death’, so named because of the many people who died of cold whilst crossing it en route between the Central Valley and Valle del General to the south. Nowadays the Pan American Highway crosses the mountain at over 3300m allowing for much more comfortable access to this endemic rich area. This afternoon we will commence our exploration of Cerro de la Muerte.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 3 At Cerro de la Muerte we will be exploring the temperate oak forests with their thick bamboo understory, open pastures and the chaparral-like paramo above the treeline. At these altitudes, many of the birds seem remarkably tame and here lives one of the world’s most spectacular birds, the Resplendent Quetzal. This is one of the few places where these wonderful birds can be seen without too much difficulty, at least if their favoured Avocado trees are fruiting, and we should be able to watch in fascination as they fly from tree to tree with their incredibly elongated uppertail coverts dancing along behind them.
Hummingbird feeders at our lodge and elsewhere in the area attract several local specialities such as Admirable (split from Magnificent), Volcano, Fiery-throated and Scintillant Hummingbirds and Grey-tailed Mountaingem. Sooty and Mountain Thrushes, Ruddy-capped and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finches forage at the edge of shrubbery that attracts spectacular Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers, Black-capped Flycatchers, Slaty Flowerpiercers, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, Flame-coloured and Silver-throated Tanagers, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Mountain Elaenia plus wintering Wilson’s and Black-throated Green Warblers. The mossy forest itself is home to the delightful Collared Whitestart, Flame-throated Warbler, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ochraceous Wren, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Ruddy Treerunner, Band-tailed and Ruddy Pigeons, Northern Tufted Flycatcher. Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-winged Vireo.
Overhead, Amongst the numerous Turkey and Black Vultures, we will be on the lookout for the local race of Red-tailed Hawk and Swallow-tailed Kites plus White-collared and Vaux’s Swifts. Sulphur-winged Parakeets regularly fly-by, though finding them perched is seldom easy, and should the bamboo be flowering we could also encounter Barred Parakeet and the strange Peg-billed Finch, although these species can be very hard to find. With a little luck we will also encounter some of the other scarce inhabitants of the area such as Dark and Ochraceous Pewees, Costa Rican Pygmy Owl, Silvery-throated Jay, Barred Becard, Black-and-yellow Phainoptila, Lesser Goldfinch, Elegant Euphonia, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black-cheeked Warbler, the curious Wrenthrush (or Zeledonia), which was formerly often placed in a family of its own, or even a covey of Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges. Above the treeline, on Cerro de la Muerte itself we will seek out the extremely localised Volcano Junco and Timberline Wren.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 4 After a final morning at Cerro de la Muerte, we shall descend to the San Isidro area for an overnight stay. If time allows we will explore the vicinity of our lodge in the late afternoon.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 5 Now that we are at lower elevation on the Pacific slope, a host of new species are to be expected. The lodge grounds are likely to produce species such as Boat-billed, Piratic, Grey-capped and Social Flycatchers, Orange-chinned Parakeet Grey-headed Chachalaca, Red-crowned and Lineated Woodpeckers, Cherrie’s Tanager (split from Scarlet-rumped), Streaked Saltator, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and Rufous-breasted Wren while also giving a first chance for the near-endemic Fiery-billed Aracari.
Most of the morning, however, will be spent at the famous private reserve of Dr Alexander Skutch, who was one of the world’s leading authorities on neotropical birds until his recent passing. A wide variety of birds can be seen in his ‘garden’ and adjacent forest and we will be particularly on the lookout for the likes of Great Tinamou, Charming Hummingbird, the near-endemic Garden Emerald (split from Blue-tailed), Purple-crowned Fairy, Baird’s Trogon, Plain-brown, and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, Dusky and Bicolored Antbirds, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Yellow-olive Flatbill and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Rufous Piha, Blue-crowned Manakin, Tawny-crowned and Lesser Greenlets, White-shouldered, Speckled and Gray-headed Tanagers, Blue Dacnis and Blue-black Grosbeak. If the Vochysia trees are flowering, our concerted effort to find the elusive, near-endemic and spectacular White-crested Coquette should result in good views. A degree of luck is also required if we are to see the splendid but threatened Turquoise Cotinga hile other scarcities we may encounter include Golden-naped Woodpecker and White-winged Becard.
In the afternoon we will drive northwards to the Carara reserve for a two nights stay.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 6 Before the Carara reserve was opened up to visitors, ornithologists were compelled to organise full-scale expeditions in order to reach Pacific-coast lowland rainforest. Now it is possible to walk into this endangered Central American habitat from a paved road!
Many of the region’s special birds can be found here including the magnificent Scarlet Macaw. These raucous, gaudy, long-tailed parrots are the park’s star attraction as they fly effortlessly amongst the large fruiting trees or flap slowly across to the nearby mangroves where they roost.
By slowly walking along the excellent trail system we may well find birds such as Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, Northern Bentbill, Plain Xenops, Northern Mealy Amazon, Lesser Elaenia, Blue-throated Sapphire, Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-whiskered Puffbird, Long-tailed and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, Squirrel Cuckoo, the smart Red-capped Manakin and the near-endemic Orange-collared Manakin, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Orange-billed Sparrow, Northern Royal and Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers, Greenish Elaenia, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Rufous-and-white, Riverside and Black-bellied Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwren and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. If we are very fortunate we will even see the stunning Yellow-billed Cotinga or one of the other elusive inhabitants of this forest such as Double-toothed Kite, Collared Forest-Falcon, Blue Ground-Dove, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher or the lovely Spectacled Antpitta. Mammals are not conspicuous, but we should encounter Mantled Howler and Central American Agouti and perhaps White-faced Capuchin.
Along the forest edge, or in nearby open country, we expect to encounter Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-mandibled) Toucan, Masked Tityra, Hoffman’s and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Roadside Hawk, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Pale-vented Pigeon, Rose-throated Becard, Streaked Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Inca Dove, Red-lored Amazon, Scaly-breasted and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Martin, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Variable Seedeater and Buff-rumped Warbler. Overhead may be found the localised Costa Rican Swift (split from Band-rumped), King Vulture and Grey and Short-tailed Hawks while overwintering species include Philadelphia Vireo, Painted Bunting, Northern Waterthrush and Tennessee Warbler.
We will also explore the mangrove-fringed Tárcoles estuary which attracts many waterbirds, typically including Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Western Cattle, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricoloured and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Wood Stork, American White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-necked Stilt, Western, Semipalmated, Spotted and Least Sandpipers, Yellow-headed and Northern Crested Caracaras, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Ringed, Belted, Amazon and Green Kingfishers, and Mangrove Swallow. One of the main attractions is the strange Boat-billed Heron, whose huge eyes and massive, ridged bill create a strange, almost prehistoric appearance. A search of the mangroves should reveal Common Black-Hawk, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Panamanian Flycatcher, Mangrove Warbler (split from American Yellow) and Prothonotary Warbler. With luck, scarcer species such as Collared and Wilson’s Plovers, Plumbeous Kite, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, Rufous-necked Wood Rail and the threatened endemic Mangrove Hummingbird are also possible. One evening we will take a short drive to look for Striped Owl as well as Pauraque.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 7 After a final session in the Tárcoles/Carara area we will drive north into Guanacaste Province for an overnight stay at Hacienda Solimar. This modern cattle ranch with its system of irrigation canals also serves as an effective reserve for a wide variety of wildlife. Here we can see such species as White-throated Magpie-Jay, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed and Snail Kites, Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Muscovy Duck, Limpkin, Northern Jacana, Common and Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, Scrub Greenlet, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Plain-capped Starthroat, Red-winged Blackbird and White-collared Seedeater. The star of the show at Solimar is the mighty Jabiru, which each year breeds at the ranch.
Here the dry forest landscape of rolling hills highlighted by the brilliant colours of flowering trees will provide a marked contrast to the rainforest. The park-like landscape around the guesthouse holds Laughing Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knee, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Black-headed Trogon, White-fronted and Yellow-naped Amazons, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Green-breasted Mango, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Banded Wren, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Scrub Euphonia, Streak-backed and Spot-breasted Orioles and Olive Sparrow. With patience, we may also see the shy Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Pacific Screech-Owl and Spectacled Owl are sometimes seen at their day roosts here while diurnal Ferruginous Pygmy Owls regularly mobbed by groups of angry small birds. With luck, we may see also one or more of the scarcer species such as Mangrove Cuckoo, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Zone-tailed Hawk, White-necked Puffbird, Banded Wren or Spot-bellied Bobwhite.
Best of Costa Rica: Days 8-9 After a final session in the Pacific lowlands we will travel into the central highlands of Costa Rica for a two nights stay in the Monteverde area. During the 1950s a group of Quakers, disillusioned with some aspects of life in the United States, came to Costa Rica. They settled at Monteverde, initiating the dairy farming which is a prominent feature of the area today. Realizing the importance of a stable watershed for the local economy, they ensured that the forests on the surrounding hills remained intact. We owe these far-sighted pioneers a great debt of gratitude, for today this magnificent area is protected by two major reserves, the world-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and the Santa Elena Reserve.
A large and varied bird community inhabits the epiphyte-laden cloudforests in these protected areas, which straddle the continental divide. Lower down on the Pacific slope there is a more pronounced dry season and here the cloudforest is replaced by semi-humid evergreen forest, home to a different set of birds. Sometimes the mornings at Monteverde are gloriously clear and one can see the forested ridges extending away into the distance. Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Red-faced Spinetails and Spotted Barbtails search the moss and bromeliad-encrusted branches, whilst at some strategically positioned feeders we will have wonderful opportunities for prolonged views of a multitude of iridescent hummingbirds including Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald (endemic to Costa Rica), Purple-throated Mountaingem, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Green Violetear and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.
Monteverde offers cloud forest bird watching at its best, although we shall doubtless have to work hard to find some of the more retiring inhabitants of the area, and the local Resplendent Quetzals are no longer as easy to see as they once were.
By quietly walking along the maze of trails we may find Black Guan, Black-faced Solitaire, Collared Trogon, Blue-throated Toucanet (split from Emerald), Prong-billed Barbet, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Spotted Woodcreeper, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Brown-billed Scythebill, Slaty Antwren, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Black-eared Warbler (split from Three-striped), Brown-hooded Parrot, Golden-winged and Golden-crowned Warblers, Common Bush Tanager, Yellowish Flycatcher, Slate-throated Whitestart, White-throated Spadebill, White-crowned Parrot, the secretive Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush. Less frequently encountered species, of which we may see one or two, include the secretive Grey-throated Leaftosser, Highland Tinamou, Barred Forest Falcon, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Azure-hooded Jay, Streak-breasted Treehunters, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Bare-shanked Screech Owl and Green-fronted Lancebill.
In the lower areas at Monteverde we will be wanting to see one of the star birds of Costa Rica, the Three-wattled Bellbird. At this time of year, these amazing birds will have returned from their lowland wintering areas and will be uttering their deafening calls from exposed perches in the canopy.
Other birds of interest in this habitat include Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Brown Jay, Canivet’s Emerald, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, White-throated Thrush, the superb Long-tailed Manakin, Plain and House Wrens and the smart White-eared Ground-Sparrow. If they have returned from their lowland wintering areas Three-wattled Bellbirds will be uttering their deafening calls from exposed perches in the canopy.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 10 After a final session at Monteverde we will transfer to the Arenal volcano for a two nights stay.
Costa Rica’s most active volcano has a perfect conical shape and depending on the weather usually allows breathtaking views. In certain years, ash columns and underground rumbling occur with nightly spectacles of glowing rocks tumbling down the slope from the volcano’s explosive eruptions.
In the afternoon we will begin our exploration of the usually productive road that skirts the scenic lake at the foot of the volcano, looking for species such as Black Phoebe, Bay Wren, Passerini’s Tanager, Plain Antvireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Tropical Parula and Black-cowled Oriole, Northern and Southern Rough-winged Swallows, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Long-tailed Tyrant and Broad-billed Motmot. If we are fortunate we also have a chance here of the very localized Keel-billed Motmot, Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and the retiring Bare-crowned Antbird.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 11 The protected forests surrounding the Arenal volcano are widely known for their abundant birdlife and other wildlife. Our lodge here offers the most stunning views of the volcano and its birdy gardens and forest trails hold an enticing collection of specialities. Flowering hedges around the lodge attract a variety of hummers including Violet-headed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Green and Stripe-throated Hermits, White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, the amazing Black-crested Coquette and Green Thorntail, whilst fruit feeders are visited by Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Montezuma Oropendolas, Buff-throated Saltator, Bananaquit and such attractive tanagers as Double-toothed (split from Hepatic), Emerald and Crimson-collared plus Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers and Olive-backed Euphonia. After dark, Black-and-white Owls are sometimes active near our rooms.
Along the lodge’s forest trails we should find such species as Crested Guan, Red-billed and Short-billed Pigeons, Grey-chested Dove, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Gartered (split from Violaceous) and Black-throated Trogons Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Olivaceous, Cocoa (split from Buff-throated) and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Slaty Spinetail, Western Woodhaunter (split from Striped), Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dull-mantled Antbird, White-ruffed Manakins, Black-crowned Tityra, Sulphur-rumped Myiobius, Cinnamon Becard, Ochre-bellied and Olive-striped Flycatchers, Song and Stripe-breasted Wrens and, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Northern Nightingale-Wren, the shy Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-capped Euphonia, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Golden-hooded, Bay-headed, Carmiol’s and White-lined Tanagers, Chestnut-capped Warbler, Black-headed Saltator, Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Black-striped Sparrow, Black-faced Grosbeak and Melodious Blackbird (a recent invader from Nicaragua).
During our time here we will be keenly observant for the growls of Spotted Antbirds that may lead us to a swarm of raiding army ants that could in turn attract a spectacular Ocellated Antbird. With some patience and luck we may also see the shy and aptly named Thicket Antpitta, while if fruiting trees are bearing ripe fruit at the time of our visit we may also see the much-desired and well-named Lovely Cotinga.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 12 After a final session at Arenal we will transfer to La Selva for a two nights stay.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 13 La Selva is the most accessible tract of humid lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. Most of this superb reserve is primary forest; whilst other parts consist of secondary growth, swamp forest, river margins, former plantations and abandoned pasture. The area is now maintained as a natural laboratory by the Organization for Tropical Studies and an excellent network of trails allows access to every habitat. Nowadays, the accommodation at the biological station is quite comfortable and staying at this thriving research facility allows us to be right in the middle of prime habitat at all times of day and night, in contrast to the restricted access hours allowed to those who stay outside the reserve. One feels privileged to have unrestricted access to this unique place, something that comparatively few visitors experience.
Over 400 species have been recorded from the area and a great many of the birds we will encounter will not have been seen earlier in our travels. Rainforests are always extremely rewarding, but one must cultivate patience and keep a vigilant watch from ground level to the canopy high above our heads. The easiest bird watching is to be had around the clearing where the research station is situated. Here the flowering and fruiting trees act as a magnet for many different species tanagers and regularly also attract the handsome Snowy Cotinga. As we walk the trails we will hear the plaintive whistles of ground-dwelling tinamous, whilst after a quiet period we may suddenly be surrounded by strange calls and have to play hide and seek with an antbird flock amongst the tangled vegetation. Overhead in the canopy gaudy tanagers, honeycreepers and cotingas are attracted to flowering and fruiting trees.
Amongst the superb selection of birds we expect to find here are the endangered Great Green Macaw, the awe-inspiring Great Curassow, Shining Honeycreeper, Collared Aracari, Olive-throated Parakeet, Black-throated Wren, Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Band-backed Wren, Bright-rumped Attila, Rufous Mourner, Red-throated Ant Tanager, Grey-rumped Swift, Tropical Pewee, White-collared Manakin, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed Hermit, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Chestnut-coloured, Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, Great, Fasciated and Western Slaty Antshrikes, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Rufous Motmot, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Black-headed Tody Flycatcher, White-ringed Flycatcher, Yellow-margined Flatbill, Plain-coloured and Dusky-faced Tanagers, Bronzed Cowbird, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and perhaps Yellow-tailed Oriole or Giant Cowbird.
With hard work and a degree of good fortune we also expect to come across some of more elusive inhabitants of the area such as Little and Slaty-breasted Tinamous (both hard to see as opposed to hear, unlike Great Tinamou which is sometimes surprisingly easy to see here), Grey-necked Wood Rail, Crested Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, Grey-headed Kite, Semiplumbeous Hawk, White-throated Crake, Short-tailed Nighthawk, the shy Agami Heron, the scarce Spot-fronted Swift, Sungrebe, Nicaraguan Seedfinch, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, , Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Pied Puffbird or Purple-throated Fruitcrow while overhead there is always a chance of a King Vulture or Barred Hawk.
Mammals are elusive, but we will see Collared Peccary and Central American Agouti and may be lucky enough to see a sloth or a noisy troupe of Central American Spider Monkeys, whilst caimans sometimes bask on the riverbanks.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 14 Today we will return towards San Jose with an extended visit to Braulio Carillo National Park along the way. Here, in the Caribbean foothills we will be on the lookout for any species missed earlier but in particular we will focus on the amazing Snowcap which is regularly to be found in the area. Other additions to our list are likely to include Tawny-crested and Black-and-yellow Tanagers while we also have a further chance of any Caribbean foothills species missed earlier plus an outside chance of local rarities such as Lattice-tailed Trogon, Blue-and-gold Tanager or even a Sharpbill.
In the late afternoon, we will continue our journey to San Jose for an overnight stay and our farewell dinner.
Best of Costa Rica: Day 15 Our Best of Costa Rica tour ends this morning at San Jose.