Costa Rica Trip Report (Part IV) – The Army Invades

At the Monteverde Ecological Sanctuary in Monteverde, Costa Rica 3-18-2015.

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.

Day 4 – Overnight at Cala Lodge – birding around Monteverde 3-18-2015

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.

"Should I, or shouldn't I?" This Variegated Squirrel was apprehensive about making the leap.
“Should I, or shouldn’t I?” This Variegated Squirrel was apprehensive about making the leap.

A female Golden-olive Woodpecker flew in to inspect a tree cavity….

Golden-olive Woodpecker - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Golden-olive Woodpecker – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

A moment later it became obvious she called this spot home.

IMG_5734
Orchid Bee – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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:

http://ibc.lynxeds.com/video/long-tailed-manakin-chiroxiphia-linearis/two-males-performing-courtship-display-female-present

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.

Long-tailed Manakin - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Tough lighting conditions and my photo doesn’t do this species justice, but if you didn’t watch the video above, I’d recommend you scroll back up and check it out. Long-tailed Manakin – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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:

Northern Barred-Woodcreeper - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Masked Tityra - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Masked Tityra – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Dusky-capped Flycatcher - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Dusky-capped Flycatcher – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Ruddy Woodcreeper - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Ruddy Woodcreeper – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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.

White-naped Brush-Finch - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
White-naped Brush-Finch – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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.”

Amanda and Michael watching a bird high up in the canopy and demo-ing warbler neck. Photo courtesy of Nancy Johnson at Blue Star Enterprises.
Amanda and Michael watching a bird high up in the canopy and demo-ing warbler neck. Photo courtesy of Nancy Johnson at Blue Star Enterprises.

The way to bird the high canopy….

Stuart avoids warbler-neck by birding the high canopy in style! Thanks to trip leaders Tom & Carol Sykes for the photo. I highly recommend checking out their blog. It's packed with beautiful photos and information on birding the U.S., Costa Rica, and other destinations: http://tomandcarolsykes.blogspot.com/
Stuart avoids warbler-neck by birding the high canopy in style! Thanks to trip leaders Tom & Carol Sykes for the photo. I highly recommend checking out their blog. It’s packed with beautiful photos and information on birding the U.S., Costa Rica, and other destinations: http://tomandcarolsykes.blogspot.com/
Paltry Tyrannulet - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Paltry Tyrannulet – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

Some of the hummingbirds found at the clearing:

Canivet's Emerald - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Canivet’s Emerald – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Coppery-headed Emerald - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Coppery-headed Emerald – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

As we made our way back through the forest, we picked up a few more species.

Slate-throated Redstart - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Slate-throated Redstart – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Talk about having the area covered; if there was a bird nearby, we were determined to find it. In this case, it was a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush.
Talk about having the area covered; if there was a bird nearby, we were determined to find it. In this case, it was a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush.
Not the best photo, but it's the best one I have. Although not super colorful, the Nightingale-Thurshs became some of my favorite birds. Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Not the best photo, but it’s the best one I have. Although not super colorful, the Nightingale-Thurshs became some of my favorite birds. Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush – Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
This one was seen at the ant swarm. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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.

Gray-throated Leaftosser - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
Gray-throated Leaftosser – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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.

Orange-bellied Trogon - Costa Rica 3-18-2015
It was near dark, but the guide had a small spotlight which allowed a few of us to snap some photos. Orange-bellied Trogon – Costa Rica 3-18-2015

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

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7 thoughts on “Costa Rica Trip Report (Part IV) – The Army Invades”

    1. Thanks for the comments and checking out the blog! I would love to get to Guyana someday! On my list of places to visit in S. America are Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Guyana. So many places…so little time!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Okay, so my comments are going to be all over the place. You don’t know how many times I’ve read this post!

    “Coppery-headed” should be “Coppery-butted” Emerald LOL. Also Stuart’s birding position photo cracked me up over and over again (every time I scrolled up or down past it). I have often laid down on the ground to ease the pain in my neck, much to the confusion of passers-by. Glad to know I’m not the only weirdo (gotta watch out for army ants, though).

    Army ants. Nice video! When we were living in SE Asia, we would come across these lines of giant ants, don’t know whether they were army or not, but we stayed well clear. Those mandibles looked intimidating. Always lots of birds in the area, that I recall, but I wasn’t a birder back then. 😦

    I have a new favorite now: motmot. Even the quetzal is not as showy, IMHO. But to be sure even the (boring) ole wren looks especially pretty just because he’s down in CR. Must be a requirement to live there: “Only the beautiful allowed.” I totally agree with Richard’s comment; my eyes would be fixed on the motmot, of course after getting a few second’s stare at the RQ just so I could say I spotted it. Or perhaps the Chlorophonia…so many gorgeous birds.

    Talk about BADD!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, thank you! I know what you mean about that photo of Stuart. I was starring straight up at the birds and turned around to see him lying there like that and I remember laughing and shaking my head. Such an easy solution to the neck problems.

    Yeah the motmots are something else and we were fortunate (spoiler alert) – we had a motmot slam and saw all the motmots in CR!!!

    And the wrens – they made my top 5 for the trip; the entire family I just loved – all those subtle colors. Checkout the song of the Nightingale Wren. We never saw one, but we hear them and they are beautiful – syncopated like a jazz musician!

    Like

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