British wildlife author and keen birdwatcher, Dominic Couzens, relates his experiences of a week’s birding in Costa Rica in search of some truly fascinating and elusive species.
“They are moving quickly,” said Fabián, with urgency in his voice. “We need to follow.”
And by that he meant breaking into a run, or at least a trot along the wet and slushy rainforest trails. It was muddy, it was dark and the terrain, to put it mildly, was undulating.
“This has better be worth it,” I thought to myself. And then I remembered the picture that Fabián had shown me of the Ocellated Antbird on his phone, and all my resistance crumbled. Breathless, we arrived at another patch of rainforest that looked the same as all the rest.
“They are approaching,” our guide assured us. “Look, look, look, there, there!” We peered into the dimly lit forest floor. And for a few seconds we glimpsed this peculiar bird, with its large patch of bare, blue skin around the eye, its singular scaly upperparts and, of all things, pink feet. After a moment it dematerialised into the gloaming.
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“Wow!” exclaimed my companion, naturalist and author Stephen Moss, at the same time exhaling heavily. A wave of delight came over us and splashed metaphorically into the puddles at our feet.
Photo Credit: Dominic Couzens, Collared Aracari
“But there is a Bicolored Antbird singing,” called Fabián merrily, and the chase was on again – more hurried footsteps, more searching in the post-dawn understorey. After great effort, all I saw was a plain brown back. Presumably, it’s only given a decent view that this bird comes out as bicolored.
Life in the Costa Rican Forests
It never occurred to us in those heady moments to ask what was going on. That was a question for a brief respite in our jungle birding, as a mixed flock of gems moved away into the Costa Rican canopy.
“Why were the antbirds moving so fast?” I enquired.
“It’s because all they do all day is follow ant columns,” replied Fabián. “The only way they feed is to catch the insects that are fleeing away from the carnivorous ants. That is their lifestyle. But every night, they must roost. Then, as soon as they wake up, they must find an ant column as quickly as possible. It isn’t always easy.”
So that is what was happening. Who would have thought that here in lowland Costa Rica, within the extreme abundance of the staggeringly biodiverse tropical forest, that there would be a birding rush hour?
Photo Credit: Dominic Couzens, Green Violet-Ear Hummingbird
Strangely, later that day, as we briefly left the dreamy forest by Laguna del Lagarto Lodge behind and checked the nearby cultivated fields, I found myself running again. For a couple of hours, we had been searching for a bird called the Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and when our local guide Didier whistled and beckoned us over excitedly from a couple of hundred metres away, I didn’t walk, I ran – for a late-middle-aged birder with binoculars, camera and a slight paunch, quite fast.
And as the wind whistled (alright, plodded) through my ears, I suddenly came to, thinking: “Why on earth am I running to see a small black bird with a large bill, that a couple of days ago I didn’t know existed?”
It was because of something I had forgotten about – joy.
True, the Nicaraguan Seed-Finch is rare and localised, and only occurs in two Central American countries. We enjoyed superb views as the birds, no longer teasing us, feed contentedly on the roadside herbs like overweight Goldfinches. But this particular delight, among many, hastened a state of mind that I had almost forgotten about.
The Joy of Birdwatching in Costa Rica
During the long, dark days of the Covid-19 global pandemic, Laguna del Lagarto would exactly be the place many of us dreamed about. It’s comfortable, the forest is footsteps away and Great Curassows strut across the lawn like dinosaurs with blow-dried hair. You can sit on the balcony with a beer or coffee (or both!) and watch the comings and goings to the feeders of a succession of wonderful, colourful birds – Montezuma Oropendola, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, lots of Brown-hooded Parrots and dream birds such as Shining Honeycreeper.
Just across the lake, still visible from the veranda, a party of King Vultures roost, while each evening Great Green Macaws gather, evidently yelling to each other by megaphone. Even Sungrebes, a shy and easily missed member of a small family called the Finfeet, swim past, their heads bobbing with apparent effort, like elastically stretched Moorhens. And here it was, this perfect place, flesh and blood, a post-pandemic idyll.
Photo Credit: Dominic Couzens, Great Curassow
Costa Rica is a dream destination, for sure, and always has been. It is also a joy destination, the perfect introduction to the marvels of the Neotropics, the southern Americas which are the richest place for birds on earth.
“The country has suffered from the drop in tourism,” Serge Arias, the founder and director of Costa Rica Birding, told us. “It was down by two-thirds in 2020 and 2021.” It was odd to hear his worries as we enjoyed a sumptuous meal at his wonderful restaurant and lodge. We mulled over this as a pair of mega-birds, Buff-fronted Quail-doves, fed just below, within earshot of our conversation.
The feeders also attracted the superb Flame-coloured and Silver-throated Tanagers, and a hummingbird, the Purple-throated Mountain-gem, hovered nearby. The future of his wonderful lodge, called Casa Tangara Dowii in honour of the Spangle-cheeked Tanager, must surely be sweet in the long term. The lure of joy will surely bring birders running.
A Multitude of Central American Birds
On our week’s birding in Costa Rica, we only visited a handful of places, but we could have visited 20, so sumptuous are the ecotourism possibilities in the country. One of our most memorable visits was little more than a coffee and birding call; but since this was Hotel Quelitales, which somehow crams 420 recorded species into just six hectares (!), perhaps we should have expected something special. The feeders were packed with sensational hummingbirds – Violet Sabrewing for being spectacular, Black-bellied for being neat and uncommon, and the Green Thorntail for, well, having a thorn-shaped tail and for being green.
Just up the trail we ran into one of those mixed flocks that can make grown birders cry. And, spiriting itself into one ecstatic moment came no less a mega-star than a White-tipped Sicklebill. This very rare hummer, with its lavishly decurved bill and odd stripy breast, is a specialist at feeding from waxy red Heliconia flowers, which we hadn’t even noticed grew low-down by the trail. Even the memory sends shivers down my spine. I texted people I hardly even knew about that one.
Photo Credit: Costa Rica Birding – Scarlet Macaw
The dry woodland and wetlands at Rancho Humo, on the Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific side of the country, provide a superb contrast to all the forest birding that you can do in Costa Rica, and provided our most luxurious stop. Put it this way – to see a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo is one thing, but to celebrate this with a lunchtime gin and tonic while using the pool, is quite another.
This delightful place lies near the headwaters of the Rio Tempisque and contains floodlands and mangroves as well as scrub. Among the other great birds we saw White-throated Magpie-Jay, Jabiru Stork, the lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Double-striped Thick-knee and Mangrove Cuckoo.
One fairly common species here, the Streak-backed Oriole, shows off a most intriguing characteristic, which nobody seems able to explain. In the north of its range in Mexico, the male and female are completely different to look at, with the male being significantly more brightly coloured, orange-and-black (like a Northern Oriole), while the female is yellowish-green. Down here, birding in Costa Rica, however, the female is much more brightly coloured, and closely resembles the male.
Such unusual facts are a joy, too. In this species, the female also sings more often and more vigorously than the male, another very odd quirk. And that Cuckoo, by the way, does the American thing of breaking rank with our Old World expectations by building its own nest and raising its own young.
Picking Favourite Costa Rica Birds
The Lesser Ground-Cuckoo was definitely one of my favourites for the trip, but of course this is always an intensely personal choice. For our young and brilliant guide Fabián, it was the Green-and-rufous Kingfisher that we had seen at Laguna del Lagarto, a scarce and retiring species that he hadn’t seen before. For my great friend of 30 years, Stephen Moss, there was only one bird it could possibly be. In fact, this was the main reason that we had come birding in Costa Rica at all.
Mention Costa Rica to any birder, or indeed Guatemala or even Honduras, and the chances are that the name that crops up will be that of the Resplendent Quetzal. So extraordinary is the male of this bird, with its opulent iridescent green train of undertail coverts, bushy crest and scarlet belly, that the Aztecs worshipped it and named a god after it, Quetzalcoatl. And these days it is still worshipped, not just by birders but by more general tourists to Central America.
Photo Credit: Costa Rica Birding – Red Legged Honeycreeper
One of the very best places to see it in Costa Rica is the Central Highlands, not far from the capital San José, and where better to stay than at the eponymous Paraíso Quetzal Lodge? This lovely location has Quetzals on tap, as well as one of the most beautiful settings for hummingbird feeders anywhere. The Talamanca, Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds, along with White-throated Mountain-gems and Lesser Violet-ears, provide a constant bickering presence just outside the restaurant.
The nearby forest is as resplendent as its most famous residents, with tall canopies liberally strewn with epiphytes, with a sensational supporting bird cast to match. It included the gorgeous Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, the Flame-throated Warbler, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush and the improbable Golden-browed Chlorophonia; the names are as opulent as the cloud-forest itself.
Photo Credit: Dominic Couzens, Green Thorntail
The Quetzals are most easily found on a finca downhill from the Lodge, where a farmer grows avocados not just for people but also for the avian royalty. A favoured tree grows a few tens of metres away from a platform where visiting enthusiasts can easily admire the birds and take photographs of them. We broke away from the camera mob and made our way a short distance downhill, where we were thrilled to see no fewer than three males, all sitting close by, their trains flopping down like tinsel hanging from a tall Christmas tree.
Stephen, who had longed to see the Quetzal for a good 40 years, was suitably transfixed.
So thrilled was he, in fact, that he got home and quickly wrote a piece on our Quetzal birding Costa Rica trip for the radio programme From Our Own Correspondent.
In it, he aptly describes the birds as being “like a parrot that has died and gone to heaven”.
Never mind the parrots. Heaven, and all its joy, was ours.
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Dominic Couzens is a British birder, author and journalist specialising in avian and natural history subjects. This article first appeared in Bird Watching magazine in the UK. Dominic and Stephen travelled on their birding in Costa Rica trip courtesy of Costa Rica Tourism and the trip was organised by Costa Rica Birding