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part 2 of our costa rica birding trip report: rancho naturalista -- home of the snowcap and assorted brilliants, fairies, thorntails, and woodnymphs too

2008-11-18 - 6:47 a.m.

Here is part 2 of our Costa Rica birding trip report. To start with part 1, Savagre and the Quest for Quetzals, click right here.

all photos © 2008 by elaine radford

view from our room at rancho naturalista

Tuesday, November 11

And so we headed out. It was another nice day with nice views as we crossed the mountains from the Pacific slope to the Caribbean slope. I honestly wasn't seeing the whole "mountain of death" thing. I suppose because of the damp, in days gone by, then it was possible that someone could die from a freak hypothermia event -- similar to the one that killed one of Roger's readers in his thirties in Arkansas -- but there are far more terrifying mountains, and I wouldn't hesitate to bring a young family (or an older one, for that matter) to this beautiful location. For great birding infrastructure in a compact, efficient package, this area of Costa Rica definitely ranks right up there with Panama, and I'd tell anyone without hesitation to "go for it."

So onward to Rancho Naturalista. As it happened, we arrived just as the previous tour was having their last lunch. So we got the best cabin in the house, with great overlooks of the feeders and the valley. We also had the tour guide to ourselves for the duration, until the very last lunch of the very last day on Friday. Whoa. You couldn't beat it with a stick. Oh, and the food is custom-cooked to meet your dietary requirements. The owner is diabetic, so the juices, salad dressings, and so on, are already sugar-free and made from all-natural ingredients, most grown on their own property. But she was happy to instruct the chef to accommodate DH's very strict low carb diet.

As for the birds...well...most of my notes are a scribble of names, hastily scrawled in my notebook, before I whirled and spun around to see the next exciting species. The hummingbird feeders near the house are a constant merry-go-round of squabbling Green-Breasted Mangos, White-Necked Jacobins, and Violet-crowned Woodnymphs. The banana feeders lure in troops of Gray-Headed Chachalacas and Montezuma Oropendulas, in addition to the Blue-Gray Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet-Rumped Caciques, and Passerini's Tanagers. When you follow the trail to the forest feeder, you go up some stairs on the well-maintained paths and suddenly you hear a loud, almost beehive-like hummmmm. Yes, that's the forest hummingbird feeders. No modest little squeaks and hums on the verge of audibility for these guys. There are a lot of birds and a lot of wings -- and a very LOUD hum that never seems to quit.

Oh, and the Snowcap? No waiting. I think we tagged the female almost before our butts hit the benches in the shelter in front of the forest feeder. The adorable male, with his flat-headed cap of snowy, snowy white, wasn't far behind. I have to admit that I was a bit intimidated at first, by the number of hummers and the speed of the movements, but with the help of our excellent guide, I soon caught on and began to be able to recognize the different species. Bronze-Tailed Plumeleteer, for example, was the only hummer with red feet (the male) or bright pink feet (the female). Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird was our rufous-tailed friend from Panama. Green Violet Ear was replaced, on the Caribbean slope, with Brown Violet Ear -- but the brown version was just as noisy. Other species included Green Hermit, Green Crowned Brilliants, and the lovely and large Violet Sabrewing.

Some other great species of the day: A White-Crowned (Pionus) Parrot posed perfectly on a bare limb to overlook the valley. I've never considered this species particularly attractive, but suddenly the light caught his snow-white crown, blue face, and wide (is it salmon?) ringed eyes, and with a gasp I saw the beauty there. But don't tell Cookie that, in natural conditions, a white crown can be as breath-taking as a yellow crown. Oh, and behind the forest sugar syrup feeders were some corn feeders to attract doves, tinamous, and Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch. I saw no tinamous, alas, but I certainly had great looks at the finch, a shy species that I wouldn't have otherwise seen.

The dinner was an incredible, unbelievable steak from their own cows done to perfection. I'm not used to eating three meals a day any more, but I couldn't leave even a bite behind on my plate. I forgot to ask Roger if it was on a par with his "Painted Hills" steak at Del Porto the other day, but, frankly, it would be difficult for me to imagine a better steak, and it wasn't appetite that gave sauce to the meal, because we'd had plenty of good food at lunch. It was just plain old-fashioned good flavor.

Wednesday, November 12

A big day for birding. I hopped up and visited the forest feeders before breakfast, in hopes of getting the Little Tinamou. No such luck but I did have fun with the whirling, spinning, scuffling hummingbirds. Back at the ranch, I noticed a Green Thorntail feeding on the purple flowers. As we birded the grounds, we encountered such treasures as Collared Aracari, Golden-Hooded Tanager, and Black Crested Coquette, but the morning truly belonged to the woodpeckers. We pretty much got the entire assemblage along the way -- Pale-Billed Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, a banded Rufous-Winged Woodpecker, and of course, the ever-popular Hoffmann's, Black-Cheeked, and Golden-Olive Woodpeckers. An interesting thing about the Pale-Billed Woodpecker: It was "double-knocking," the way that Ivory-Bills were said to do. It was amazing how far the sound carried across the valley. It really made you wonder how Ivory-Bills could truly be overlooked, if they still exist.

When I was sitting on the balcony after lunch, watching the disputacious Green-Breasted Mango males battle to blows -- you could hear the impact when they smacked each other -- one of them suddenly came up and touched my fingernail. So cute. I've been tagged by Green-Breasted Mango.

There was some drizzle, but the weather broke later in the afternoon, and we took a stroll to the famous pools, a stair-step sequence of natural ponds in the river or creek, created by the various rocks. Here, the hummingbirds bathe in a peculiar manner. The water is actually too deep for them to stand, so instead, they fly down and dive into a pool, bob back up several feet into the air, and dive back down again. They make multiple dives. I saw some of them, especially the Violet-Crowned Woodnymphs make 10 or 12 dives in a single pass. The guide said he once counted 40 dives, but he's still behind his friend's record, who once observed a determined Woodnymph make 47 dives. The glittering colors of this species seem to catch some secret light of the otherwise dark forest when they bathe, for they truly seemed to flash and gleam like rare jewels as they bob up and down.

A female Snowcap came for her bath, and when she was finished, the male Snowcap performed his own ablutions. They don't tolerate each other or move about in pairs. I think it was a case of copycat -- he saw her having fun and decided to do the same.

A very special moment when the Purple-Crowned Fairy arrived for his bath: Large, dramatic, and colorful, he seemed to shimmer as he dived up and down in the clear water. Other bathers included the Violet Sabrewing, the Bronze-Tailed Plumeleteer, and, oh yeah, a bird who could stand rather than dive to bathe, the hilariously named Tawny-Throated Leaftosser. He rolled around exuberantly in the shallows, splashing and shaking off sparkles of water like a small puppy.

Right before dinner, just as full dark was coming on, a Common Paraque emerged onto the lawn.

a huge owl butterfly on the CATIE grounds, roughly the size of my open hand

Thursday, November 13

I got up before breakfast to check the "moth net." Here, a light was left on overnight, near a white cloth, to attract a bewildering species of attractive, unusual, or just plain odd-looking moths. There were a number of warblers and a pair of quite noisy Red-Throated Ant-Tanagers who showed up to sample their share of the moths. A quiet White-Breasted Wood-Wren hopped close, but then retreated when she noticed me. I felt that I was keeping her from her breakfast, so I headed over to check the forest feeders again. Still no Tinamou. Well, there's one in every crowd.

It was a beautiful day. The guide announced that Christmas coming and that summer was here, and so it proved. The rain was gone, and the skies were a glorious blue. We hiked up the peak of the ranch's mountain, enjoying the many butterflies out to appreciate the nice weather and searching for various new species to inflate our already large list. You sensed that there were times when the bird's discoverers were baffled to think of a fresh name for so many different birds. I mean, come on. Scale-Crested Pygmy-Tyrant? "The name is bigger than the bird," said the guide. White-Crowned Manakin, Short-Tailed Hawk, Buff-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Stripe-Breasted Wren -- a lot of syllables in that list.

In the afternoon, we arranged for a driver to take us, the guide, and his wife, over to C.A.T.I.E. which is a large agricultural college, with an attached high school, and also a huge botanical collection, such as the attempt to collect every variety known of coffee. There's also a lake. Costa Ricans do not pay to enter, so I only had to buy my ticket and Roger's for all of us to get in. Despite the beautiful day, though, it was not over-used, and most of the other people around had the look of students, professors, or workers. We laughed at the Red-Billed Pigeon in the scope -- it's a trick question, the bill is not red. And we thrilled to the sight of a nearby Roadside Hawk, which caught and ate a large insect. Another Roadside Hawk noticed and flew over, perhaps to steal the prey, but it left without much challenging the first bird. I suspect that it was hoping for a larger prize.

We found a field with some telephone or electric wires strung overhead, where we were amused to notice perched Blue-and-White Swallows, Northern Rough-Wings, and Southern Rough-Wings perched together, each species on its own level of the three wires, like a textbook illustration to compare the differences. So close to the Northern Rough-Wing, the Southern's buffy throat was particularly striking. I wouldn't necessarily want to make a full I.D. of the birds on the wing, though.

We weren't even out of the vehicle at the lake, when we saw our first Green Ibis. The Boat-Billed Heron was a little more bashful, since it was already snuggled into its tree. After a time, it actually tucked its big bill away into the sleeping position. Awwww. Northern Jacanas with young, Purple Gallinules, one each of singing male Gray-Crowned Yellowthroat and Olive-Crowned Yellowthroat.

The day ended with a bang, since the guide played a tape of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The male began to sing back from a nearby bush, and we got great looks at him. Then the female flew into the bush with him. Perfection. They were the rufous flavor and looked wonderful in the scope. Oh, and just as we were departing the grounds, we got a nice view of the exotic-looking Masked Tityra, always an entertaining sight. We startled at least three Common Paraques sleeping on the road when we drove back after dusk, but we managed to get home safely without running over anybody.

Friday, November 14

Our last morning. Final visits to the forest feeder, final homage to the glorious Snowcap. Did I mention that I saw a highly outraged White-Necked Jacobin peck the snowy crown of the male Snowcap? The Brown Violet Ear proved that he too could sing as loudly -- and flare his violet "ears" as boldly -- as his green counterpart on the Pacific slope.

We found a huge mixed flock in the forest, with birds going every which way in every crazy direction. Better looks at the male and female Checker Throated Antwren and Plain Antvireo. Lots of the usual suspects among the Woodcreepers, although I was always on the wrong side of the tree when the Plain Xenops was called. A Worm-Eating Warbler led us a merry chase, and, as a result of birding on a mountain, I actually found myself in the fairly ridiculous and (unusual to me) position of identifying a Worm-Eating Warbler from below. Russet Antshrike was a nice catch, and White-Ruffed Manakin a disappointing one, as I saw only the female, whom I could not have ID'd on my own. Best bird of the hike was the three Crested Guans, who gave great views of flying (not far), climbing, and just posing. They were high enough in the trees for the light to catch their handsome scarlet throats and jaunty black "crests."

It was hard to know what to do about tipping, which is not a big thing in Costa Rica. As I mentioned before, it was the last week of rainy season, and rather a tough season it has been, with the collapse of the American economy and its harsh effect on disposable income and therefore on travel. I had an idea that there were cash flow issues, and I decided to offer our Rancho guide (what I hope was) a generous tip. I told him it was a "thank you," and while he seemed a little startled, he did not appear offended, so I hope he took it in the spirit of appreciation that was intended. I did notice that at Savagre, no one tipped, but the lead guide was an owner, so it's different rules, isn't it? Also, there was a small tip box at Rancho for the rest of the staff, so I took that as a cue that tipping there was OK, as opposed to something gauche. (I well remember trying to offer a small tip to a cab driver in Panama, and the guy looking at me as if I was out of my tree.) Oh, the land mines that society creates for us, when we're just trying to do the right thing. But I think I handled it well, and, please, no hate mail from the Lonely Planet hordes who believe that Americans who tip are ruining travel.

Oh, and while on the topic of my social gauche-itude, I broke my post-Katrina policy of never asking anyone where they're from or why or what they do, and it only served to confirm that I should just stop asking questions. The question seemed innocent enough. I asked someone why she moved to Costa Rica and, with a chuckle, said, "Of course you don't have to tell me if it's a sad story." Well, it was a sad story. Something about a lawsuit, something about a brilliant young lawyer gunned down by mobsters. Oops. I thought the encounter with the Virginia Tech kid should have taught me to stop asking questions. Just let 'em volunteer if they want to volunteer but don't dredge up bad memories just for idle conversation over wine, right? But DH assures me that the person was not offended and was happy to talk. I have to remember that too -- some people are not tired of their own story and they are happy to talk about it. For some people, talking about it actually makes them feel better.

Me, for now, I'm not necessarily in that number. So let's get back to talking about birds.

It was a decently long drive, over three hours, from Rancho to the Buena Vista hotel overlooking Alajuela. Nice weather, nice views of the various volcanic mountains, nice views of the Basilica in Cartago. It was close to dark and getting a bit misty as we arrived. Another glorious room with a view -- all of our rooms were glorious rooms, top of their category, with fantastic views -- so maybe I'd better put in a plug for Noel Urena at Sunny Travel. I'm told he's a great bird guide too, although we didn't have the opportunity to meet him, but I can tell you upfront that he's a great trip planner/travel agent. Anyways, we scurried out to take a walk on the hotel's "coffee trail" on the hillside, a beautiful garden that produced a lovely male Plain-Capped Starthroat, his red throat glistening when he turned just so in the falling darkness, and our final bird of the trip, a very fine Blue-Crown Motmot, who actually perched and began to play the role of the grandfather clock by tick-tocking the rackets on his tail. (I've been told that "motmot" is French for "ticktock" and to watch this fine bird in action is to believe it.)

Saturday, November 15

We went out First Class and were shipped back Economy with Elite Access. Oh well. We don't need all the free drinks and the clubbing when DH has to drive at the end of the day anyway. The lines to pay the departure tax were not anything as bad as the line at the Liberia airport, and, being Elites, we got through security with time to spare.

Cool views of the caldera of Poas Volcano on our flight out.

At Houston, alas, we had a small disappointment. DH's passport, with the new number, was again flagged because of his common name that is, alas, so commonly used as an alias by the evil-doers of this world in search of easily pronounced, easily remembered simple British names. However, in Houston, they now have an entire new room just for people with common last names, where DH met another new initiate into the land of Kafka -- a Michael Smith, which is probably used just as often as Roger Williams. For a wonder, the people working the "common names that get flagged as potential aliases and/or bad guys" have actually become quick and efficient in Houston, especially if you tell them that you've been previously flagged. DH let them know, and the clerk said, "Ah, then maybe your clearance is already in the computer," and so it was. I timed the whole thing, and he was out of secondary in 20 minutes. Sure, it would be better not to have the hassle at all, but I have to say I'm impressed that they'd improved the efficiency so much.

Our priority tagged bags were already off the baggage claim belts and waiting for us after we got downstairs at MSY. "It's good to be the king!" I exclaimed, while the mere peasants still waiting for their bags to be off-loaded gave me a few dirty looks.

Did I mention that I had empty middle seats blocked out beside me on both flights? DH had an empty seat blocked out beside him on the IAH-MSY leg, but there had been some stupid-ass changes SJO-IAH, and he ended up surrounded by a family. He did keep the aisle though, so it's all good.

Home again, home again, where I realized that I had another flight departing in just a few days and a huge, huge birdlist of 181 total species, with 89 lifers, and 21 hummingbird species, waiting to be entered into the data base. Whoa. For lightning fast birding and list size inflation, I honestly believe you can't beat Panama and Costa Rica.

an atmospheric purple gallinule contemplating his lily pads at CATIE

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