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part 1 of our 2008 costa rica trip report: savagre, the mountain of death, and the quest for quetzals

2008-11-17 - 8:04 a.m.

Note: Here is part 1 of our Costa Rica birding trip report. For the huge, huge list of 181 birds we spotted, click right here.


all photos 2008 by elaine radford

what to our wondering eyes did appear but a handsome male quetzal loitering in the trees

Saturday, November 8

We paid for our flight with miles, so we kind of had to take what we could get. As it happened, our outbound tickets were for First Class, MSY-ATL-SJO. Going through Atlanta on Delta made for a long day, but despite the fact that I never got a straight answer on the internet, as it turned out, we did have club room privileges. (If our first class tickets were to Canada or Mexico, apparently we wouldn't have privileges. Some of the flyertalkers were convinced that the same rule was true for all of Central America. However, I simply went to the Crown Club Room in New Orleans, showed our First class "international" itinerary and asked, and they said, "Welcome." Yay!)

So, in New Orleans, we had time for some complimentary coffee and breakfast in the club before our flight departed, and it was a good thing too, since it took some time in getting off the ground. Thanks to a longish layover, we still had time for an extended visit in one of the Atlanta clubs. The food there was actually pretty interesting. If you worked fast, there were even a few pieces of shrimp out there, as well as some kind of chicken salad, a vegetable tray, some kind of curry. I asked for white wine and the bartender asked, "What kind?" Hmm. After seeing the choices, I picked the Pinot Grigio. Not bad. But, if I were to be honest, there were some negatives to this club. There were no couches, no stockticker, and very few TVs -- in fact, no TV was visible where we found the last two seats. Yet it was also very dark. I was glad to have my booklight. My suggestion to the good folks at Delta: If you are going to support literacy by cutting back on the television, please provide enough light to allow people to read.

In the Northwest clubs, you have to mix your own drinks. Pro: You don't have to tip anyone and you can pour as much as you like. Con: Not as many booze choices and no one there to fix you a specialty or fancy cocktail. Actually, in the event, I didn't try one of Delta's fancy margaritas. It sounded a little overwhelming, and I still had a four hour First Class flight, with its own small bar of adult beverage choices, ahead of me. So I stuck to the wine.


check the stones in the middle of the savagre river for a little ole torrent tyrannulet...hey, the name is more dignified than its forest buddy, the paltry tyrannulet

The movie was terrible. It was called Bonneville, and appeared to be about a fat chick, a skinny check, and a regular chick -- all middle-aged -- driving around the American Southwest in an old car. OK, whatever. I don't think anyone bothered to put on their headphones. I know I didn't. So maybe I'm not being entirely fair. But, come on, people. Old re-runs of Frasier are better than that!

I also learned that Delta has stopped serving Bailey's and is now serving a Starbucks Cream Liqueur. Hmm. The food must have been OK. I don't remember anything about it one way or the other by now, so I couldn't have been too traumatized.

It was well after dark when we landed at the airport. We could see the lights on the mountains around San Jose, a strange effect for someone used to the flatlands. The Hotel Bougainvillea was absolutely beautiful, with a large collection of quartz crystals on display, but we really didn't have much time to look around. Birders get started early in the morning, so we pretty much went directly to sleep.

Sunday, November 9

I wished I had gotten up at 5:30 or so to enjoy the grounds before breakfast. I didn't realize how beautiful or how extensive they were -- nor how quickly they would warm up after our 7:00 A.M. breakfast. I truly regret not arising early enough to check the gardens at dawn. We had a decent buffet with our table for two at the window near the feeders. The only real excitement was a Grayish Saltator who kept trying to fly into the window. Pretty Blue-Gray Tanagers were enjoying most of the goodies.

I didn't think Highway 2 over the infamous El Cerro del Muerto ("Mountain of Death") was all that bad. The Pan-American Highway is much better maintained than the Inter-American Highway, and I thought the threat of death greatly exaggerated, especially as the morning drive was mostly sunny, providing us with some great views. At one point, considering we were entering a cloud forest, we did get enveloped in a cloud for a little while, but it wasn't particularly impossible to see. Or maybe I dozed off during the scary point. I kept thinking, DH could have driven this road himself perfectly well. The final, gravel road up the mountain to the Savagre Mountain Resort was a little hairy, though.

The property was gorgeous, and we were seeing new birds right away. Even before we met the guide, we had great views of beautiful gems like Collared Redstart, Green Violet Ear, Wilson's Warbler, Flame-Colored Tanager, Acorn Woodpecker, Sooty-Capped Bush-Tanager, and Rufous-Collared Sparrow with his dapper "bow tie." I puzzled over a large blackish finch with striking yellow stockings on its thighs, before I realized that -- duh! -- here was the Yellow-Thighed Finch. If only all of the names were so straight-forward.

After lunch, we were met by a guide whose first priority was to get us a Resplendent Quetzal. It's the specialty of the house, after all. Well, it didn't take long, although he actually found a Black Guan first, and he had some harsh words about the guan, since we ended up finding two of them, and he had just spent two days looking for one, in vain, with another customer. "I don't wish to see any more Black Guans," he grumbled.


score! no waiting for this bird...

It turned out that we were supposed to check the avocado trees for Quetzals. That's very interesting to me, since avocado is poisonous to parrots. Well, one bird's poison is another bird's meat, as we quickly found a large tree where the Quetzals were gathering to enjoy the bounty. The guide thought he saw seven birds, and for sure, there were two females and four males, if not more. The males kept charging one another or else springing up and letting their tails stream a little ways in a small display flight. It was sooooo cute. Of course the tree was behind someone's small house, complete with fluffy white poodle. Poor poodle. He had to bark, but it was pretty perfunctory. I get the impression that he spents most of his afternoons announcing the arrival of Quetzal seekers.

Great looks at Yellow-Winged Vireo, the lovely Long-Tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and an Emerald Toucanet trying to somehow arrange and eat a larger piece of fruit than he was really built to swallow. Close but not too impressive looks at Fiery-Throated Hummingbird -- fortunately, we'd have infinitely better looks at its flash and color the next day.

After the tour, I left DH to enjoy a beer while I strolled around the grounds by myself to try to get closer to the birds. I found my first Grey-Tailed Mountain Gem-- and then several others too. The last one of the evening was actually at the feeder. A Green Violet Ear was "singing" damn loudly for a hummingbird and finally flared out its violet ear tufts in the direction of the intruder. Heck, all those Magnificent Hummingbirds who try to dominate the feeders at Savagre are bad enough, without another species quietly introducing itself into the fray. How much must one Green Violet Ear tolerate before he snaps and hoses down the whole place with his AK 47?

There was a huge and dramatic rainbow in the evening, reminding me of how many rainbows we saw on our last visit to Costa Rica in December 2005.

Our cabin was marvelous. Apparently, we got the "upscale" tour, although I thought from the price that we had a "budget" tour. (Actually, I think we just got a steal because it was the last week of "rainy season.") Anyhoo, we bought a bottle of wine in the bar and I sipped a glass while soaking in the tub, with three candles alongside flickering attractively. Meanwhile, DH built a roaring fire in the fireplace, so we could enjoy the rest of the bottle while toasting our toes in front of a crackling fire.

Monday, November 10

Oops. The hot water had gone out when we woke in the morning. Maybe we had the budget tour after all.

Today, we had to share our tour with five other birders, a couple with somebody's mom, and another, older couple. We actually had the son of the homesteader himself give the tour. (Don't get excited. There is no more homesteading in Costa Rica, and the son is several years older than I am. If you want to move there, and who doesn't, you will have to save up your pennies and dimes like everybody else.) He was an extremely enthusiastic birder, to put it mildly. I gathered from context that life on the original homestead, a dairy ranch, was probably a pretty tough way to make a living. They eventually put trout in the river and catered to fishing groups, and now, in the last couple of decades, they have switched over to the birding, which is encouraged by the government because it's a non-consumptive use of the land. And it probably brings in a lot more euros and dollars than making cheese ever did. He mentioned that the government would like it if they removed all the cows, and they're over the official cheese-making, although I did see one lone cow, perhaps one of the extended family's personal animals, hidden away under some trees.

Anyway, we had a jam-packed morning making sure that everyone in the group saw the Quetzals-- not too tough since the same flock was in the same tree behind the poodle house. A Rufous-Browed Peppershrike sang to us, with a song that seemed to include something of a wolf-whistle, if you ask me. We did some driving and then some hiking to the peak of el Cerro del Muerto to be sure of getting the Timberline Wren and Volcano Junco. The wren showed itself pretty quickly, but the junco was a brat. We did the entire walk seeing nothing but scurry and skulk and then, when we went back to the road, there were two of them hopping around as bold as you please. I even managed to get a couple of decent photographs.


many birds have a sense of humor, and volcano junco laid very low indeed until we'd gone almost back to the vehicle

Lots of new birds today, and I know I'm leaving something out. At one point, we found a mixed flock of small stuff, including the Flame-Throated Warbler. Nice looks at a pair of Black and Yellow Silky Flycatchers. I could tell that the guide was surprised that we got so close to a singing Wrenthrush, also called Zeledonia. (One of the other tourists said that Zeledonia is the only bird name that starts with a "z," which I think can't be right, but to be honest, I can't come up with a counter-example at the moment.) We saw both a juvenile and an adult Red-Tailed Hawk. Near a small house with a nice feeder set-up, we saw another male Quetzal, the patient one who allowed us all to take photographs. We also got the Large-Footed Finch here, although I was quite worried for the bird, since a skinny orange cat was clearly stalking it, and it was not inclined to fly very far away whenever the cat tried to pounce. Was it deliberately teasing the cat with its air of cool nonchalance? Are Large-Footed Finches capable of sarcasm? If so, I was completely taken in, because I was convinced that the bird was simply oblivious -- and, yet, somehow, thinking back, I realize that he always managed to take flight "just in time."

At some point, we lost the rest of the tour group, and Roger and I went alone with the guide down the path near the waterfall. Down near the river, the guide called, "Louisiana Waterthrush," and I sputtered, "That ain't no waterthrush!" and then we realized that there were two birds. The nicely marked singing bird was indeed Louisiana Waterthrush, and the rather unexciting loiterer nearby was Ruddy-Capped Nightingale-Thrush, so don't ask me how I found the less obvious bird first.

Our last bird of the day was a Torrent Tyrannulet. He wasn't in a waterfall, but he was proudly perched on a large smooth stone in the middle of the rushing river. I always think of the word "torrential" as part of the phrase "torrential downpour." This bird appeared to have a love of pounding water, even if it wasn't raining.

After dinner, the guide took some of us out on an owl prowl. There was a lovely double moonbow, with lots of color in it. Most impressive. However, there were no owls. Oops.


the atmospheric high altitude "forest" at the top of el cerro del muerto comes up to around the height of your ankles, lots of flash and color in a small package though

Tuesday, November 11

We were supposed to be packing and waiting for our driver to take us to Rancho Naturalista, and, in fact, the Savagre guide had already headed off with the younger couple. Suddenly, he hurried back and asked us to join him for just half an hour. "I heard that there is a very good tree nearby," he said. "It will only take thirty minutes." I think he didn't want our last memory to be the busted owl prowl, although we're all adults here, and we understand that no bird is ever guaranteed. Still, he was super-conscientious and really wanted to end things with a bang -- and so he did. In the grass near the trees in question, we quickly added Yellow-Faced Grassquit. Then on to the tree, which was hopping with "small stuff." We added Brown-Capped Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Black and White Warbler, male and female Blue-Hooded Euphonia, and the Blue and White Swallows circling high overhead. And, of course, the usual suspects such as Yellow-Winged Vireo and Flame-Throated Tanager were also easily seen, in great light.

Then we rushed back at the speed of sound and met our driver without making him wait too terribly long. Actually, we thought pick-up was at 8:30, but the driver actually arrived at 8 A.M. so we were a teensy bit late. But it was all worth it. Besides, Costa Rica has entered the era where the guide can take and receive calls on his cell phone while in the field birding. I figured if we'd run too much overdue, he could have called it in that we were on our way, and please pretty please don't leave us behind. Alternately, the driver could have called us and told us to get a move on. It wasn't like the guide hadn't received plenty of calls, inquiring as to where the heck he was and where the heck he would be, on the previous day's outing.

You have just read part 1 of our Costa Rica trip report: Savagre and the quest for Quetzals. Stay tuned for Part 2, Rancho Naturalista, Home of the Snowcap.


ancient plants from before the time of the dinosaurs can still be found thriving at the peak of el cerro del muerto

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