This is the fourth post in a series documenting my Costa Rica birding trip from March14-28, 2015. To read the previous post, click here: Costa Rica Trip Report (Part III) – The Ledge, The Cloud Forest, and One of The Top Five
Awoke on day 4 (March 18th, 2015) at 5am and the early morning routine was slowly morphing into habit; dress, brush teeth, grab bins and camera, out the door by 5:20am. I spent 20 minutes birding alone on the Cala Lodge grounds in the early morning light. By midday, the peace and serenity of those first moments of daylight would contrast sharply with the disorderly chaos of an invading army. But that would come later and before I get ahead of myself, there was coffee, breakfast, birds, and critters.
By 6am, the group was doing some pre-breakfast birding at the lodge. This was the first place we stayed where the lodge brought birds to us by putting out assorted fruit on large platforms. Birding on a veranda with the birds coming to the feeders at eye level and a cup of coffee close at hand is an ideal way to start the day. Although the variety of species was a bit low, the feeders provided excellent photo opportunities and there was enough action to keep us occupied until breakfast.
The Blue-crowned Motmot above, along with the other birds looking for a free meal, had to deal with an apprehensive Variegated Squirrel. Within what appeared to be easy jumping distance from tree to feeder, this squirrel looked tentative and took it’s sweet time getting to the fruit.
A female Golden-olive Woodpecker flew in to inspect a tree cavity….
A moment later it became obvious she called this spot home.
After breakfast we headed to the Monteverde Ecological Sanctuary. The sanctuary is a private reserve composed mainly of low, mountainous forest and along with the mild humidity, offers a distinct habitat compared to the cloud forest. It wasn’t long before the first signs of forest chaos were discovered; there was an invasion underway and the head of the army was coming! Our guide Richard figured we had some time before the advancing army showed itself in full so we headed down a trail for one of our target species. When we reached a certain spot, Richard positioned us on the trail and pointed out the exact branch to watch. Within a minute of using audio playback, in came a beautiful male Long-tailed Manakin which landed on the same branch Richard had pointed out. A few moments later the female showed up.
Words cannot do justice to the Long-tailed Manakin mating display so instead of butchering the imagery, check it out for yourself. Click the link below – the video was shot by our guide on a pervious trip:
Oh what a sight it was to watch this incredible dance live!! Although it didn’t end up on my Top 5 list, it easily could have. It’s one of those moments I’d love to go back and experience again, and hopefully some day will.
Talk about setting high expectations. It was still morning and we had hours of birding ahead of us. How do you top that mating display? Well on this day we opted for taking on an invading army. We returned to where we had come across the front lines of the army earlier that morning, but this time the main body was moving through the forest. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the army I’m referring to was a swarm of army ants – a birders dream!
When army ants move through a forest, all the insects, spiders, and other ground critters flee or get consumed. This makes easy pickings for the birds as the insects give up their locations by scampering from under the leaf litter of the forest floor. For approximately 90 minutes, we watched a vast array of bird species fly in for an easy meal as the swarm flood over the forest floor. How many insects flee? At one point I thought I heard rain drops starting to pelt the leaf litter of the forest floor only to realize it was the sound of the fleeing insects!
Below is a very brief video of a very small portion of the swarm (as mentioned above, we basically stood in the same general area for 90 minutes as it moved through – that should give you an idea of just how big a swarm is):
Not only did the swarm bring chaos to the forest floor, but it brought chaos to us birders as well as we moved from one spot to another – crouching low, bending to look around tree trunks, checking the canopy – the number of species that came in was staggering, not to mention trying to ID them all. You’d be standing in one spot and hear someone call out a new species and before you’d have a chance to slide over, someone else would be calling out another. It was perhaps the most exciting 90 minutes of my birding life and at the end of it I could only stand there smiling, mentally exhausted. It reminded me of the feeling I had after taking the 3 hour and 30 minute GRE (Graduate Record Exam) – my brain was fried, overloaded with trying to see and ID everything that was going on. However, unlike the GRE, I was in a state of bliss.
A small sampling of some of the birds seen near the swarm:
In the afternoon we headed to another reserve in Monteverde, but what it was called or where exactly it was located I’m not sure. I’ll blame my inability to recall this location on the mental exhaustion of the ant swarm, but in reality it was a lack of good note taking. However, I do know that one of our target birds is perhaps the most famous species in Costa Rica: the Resplendent Quetzal.
This is one of the places we ran into what some call “civilians”, others “tourists”, and I call “expendables.” Whatever you call them, they are non-birders. I do however give them credit for getting off the beaten path and checking out some wildlife…..especially birds. We found the quetzal high up in a stand of trees and while a gorgeous bird, those who only seek the quetzal miss out on hundreds of other species which challenge and surpass its beauty.
It didn’t take long before a few of us noticed some small, non-descript birds working a brush pile nearby. While the expendables where watching the quetzal through a scope, our lot was chasing down the White-napped Brush-Finch shown below. Richard was talking with other guides near the quetzal when he noticed we were working the shrubs and walked over. “Only real birders would turn their backs on the Resplendent Quetzal to checkout the small finches in the brush” he exclaimed. We smiled in agreement.
A littler further along we came into a clearing which we birded for a good hour as a host of species, both near and far, entertained us. The Golden-browed Chlorophonia shown below were high up in a distant tree. Staring at birds high up in the canopy will eventually bring on “warbler neck” – soreness brought on from having the back of your head against your back as you gaze nearly straight up. I turned around rubbing the back of my neck to see Stuart lying on his back on the ground, pack under his head, watching the same birds in style and comfort.
Stand like this for a few minutes and you’ll know “warbler neck.”
The way to bird the high canopy….
Some of the hummingbirds found at the clearing:
As we made our way back through the forest, we picked up a few more species.
Heading down the trail with the sun setting below the canopy, Richard heard a distant call. We didn’t stop, but about 50 yards later the proverbial light bulb illuminated above Richard’s head and with a smirk on his face, he snapped his fingers and did a 180. He couldn’t place the call upon first hearing it, but once he did, it was only a few minutes before we found the noise-maker: a Gray-throated Leaftosser.
As we left the park, we came across another tour group and as usual, Richard knew the guide. This kind of networking (i.e. Richard knowing almost all the other guides) was a continuous benefit as Richard was able to gather information on what species had been seen or heard and their location. In this case it was an Orange-bellied Trogon.
Looking back through this post – the number of stories (both shared and those edited out), species seen, and photos included – it’s hard to believe we’d be able to top this as the best overall day. But believe me, we were going to try!
Click the link to jump to the next post in this series: Costa Rica Trip Report (Part V) – A Trip to Heaven