Monday, 20 April 2020

Costa Rica - Parque Nacional Los Quetzales

The Cordillera de Talamanca ranges from central Costa Rica to western Panama, and these mountains hold an abundance of life. When we decided to visit Costa Rica I was perhaps most excited to spend some time in these highlands. During a previous trip to Panama in 2014 I only made it as far west as El Copé, meaning that the vast majority of the species endemic to the Cordillera de Talamanca would be new for me. And there were some pretty interesting bird species - from Fiery-throated Hummingbird to Flame-throated Warbler, from Yellow-thighed Brushfinch to Golden-browed Chlorophonia, from Black Guan to Dusky Nightjar.

Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

In total, Laura and I had budgeted six weeks in Costa Rica together. We would rent a car for the first twelve days and then travel with my parents for ten days after that. Following that, we would have six days on our own again, then a week traveling with Laura's mom, aunt and a family friend, and finally, a week on our own. Of course, the ongoing pandemic affected these plans by cancelling out the latter three weeks. But, our twelve days at the beginning with the rental car were unaffected.

Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

It felt great to have the freedom of a rental car again! We dealt with the usual BS at the Budget office as they tried to push unnecessary insurances on us but soon we were on the road. It was a windy day in San José and this did not really abate as we climbed higher into the mountains. Sporadic fog patches, moderate rain and heavy cloud cover added to the gloom and unfavourable birding conditions. I did not care anyways since even the common bird species here were potential "lifers" for me. We made a few stops to buy groceries and other supplies and by the mid-afternoon we had turned down the road towards the famous Paraiso Quetzal Lodge. Of course, we would not be staying here - it was out of our budget - but instead we had accommodations booked at the nearby Retiro El Sanctuario. Our room here was basic but there was hot water, warm blankets and beautiful surroundings including a few of their own trails.

Sooty-capped Chlorospingus - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Sooty-capped Chlorospingus - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

The last few hundred meters before El Retiro is not really passable in a non-4WD vehicle and so we parked here at a little pull-off. Upon exiting the car, we were surrounded by a small mixed flock, and lifers began to appear (some of which are pictured above). Our first birds were common ones in the Cordillera de Talamanca, but no less exciting. Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner and Slaty Flowerpiercer were ticked within the first two minutes!

Slaty Flowerpiercer - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

We were already in the double-digits of lifers by the time we arrived at our accommodations. We quickly settled in and went right back out to find more birds.

Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Our first Fiery-throated Hummingbird, a female, quietly perched on a utility wire beside a flowering bush that she defended against any intruders. While she lacked the characteristic colourful throat that males exhibit, she was exquisite in her own right.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Fiery-throated Hummingbird - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Our first Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher was cause for celebration as this is certainly one of the more distinctive of the Talamanca species, and one that I was really looking forward to! Fortunately they proved to be quite common in the general area, especially once one trained their ears to listen for the distinctive flight calls.

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Tanager diversity in Central America is far lower than in South America, especially among the family Thraupidae which includes the "typical" tanagers. But the family Cardinalidae which includes our familiar Scarlet Tanager and Northern Cardinal is well-represented in Central America. We commonly noted Flame-coloured Tanagers throughout Parque Nacional Los Quetzales as well as at Retiro El Sanctuario.

Flame-coloured Tanager - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

The Large-footed Finch may not look too fancy but they have a ton of character. These birds are indeed well-named. They utilize their namesake body parts to scratch around in the undergrowth, towhee-like. Large-footed Finches had a propensity to hop across a path in about two giant leaps which was pretty impressive to witness!

Large-footed Finch - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Large-footed Finch - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

That evening we met the other guests at Retiro El Sanctuario - a French family - as well as the owners, and we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal. I was feeling a little lazy after dinner and so neglected to go out owling. We still had a second night to spend here anyways.

Dawn at Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

In the morning Laura and I headed over the the Kilometre 76 Road leading to Providencia which we had read about on Josh and Kathy's excellent blog, Birds of Passage.

But we were distracted a few times on the short drive over to the road - first, by this dapper Black-capped Flycatcher. They would prove to be a common inhabitant at this elevation, but the first few are always exciting!

Black-capped Flycatcher - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

We also stopped before we passed the Paraiso Quetzal Lodge since there were some tourists with a guide standing in the middle of the road, looking at a pair of Resplendant Quetzals. We enjoyed the quetzals and also happened to noticed two more individuals in the neighbouring tree. This spectacular species was previously on my "heard-only" list. While I am fine with having some tapaculos and ant-things as "heard-only" on my life list, Resplendant Quetzal just simply did not rest comfortably there and I was happy to rectify the situation!

Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

The Km 76 Road to Providencia should be on every birder's itinerary to these mountains. This quiet dirt road passes through high quality forest in the national park, starting at over 3000 m in elevation and continuing down below 2000 m. The potential species along this road are endless - just about every Talamancan specialty can be found here.

I will start with a photo of a Resplendent Quetzal. A pair of these impressive birds were at the roadside, only a few kilometres from the start of the road.

Resplendent Quetzal - Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

One species that is sometimes seen along this road is the scarce Rough-legged Tyrannulet, and we were lucky to connect with a single individual which obliged us by singing. We had no luck with a few of our other target birds though, including American Dipper, Ochraceous Pewee, Silvery-throated Jay and Streak-breasted Treehunter.

But despite missing a few species, we had an extremely enjoyable morning with many highlights. A pair of Spotted Wood-Quails were along the roadside, though they slipped into the forest before we could obtain good looks. We heard our first Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. And we picked through a few nice mixed flock which contained several more novel species for us - Yellow-winged Vireo an Flame-throated Warbler included.

Flame-throated Warbler - Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Yellow-winged Vireo - Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Talamanca Hummingbird - Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

By the late morning we found ourselves below 2000 m in elevation not far from the town of Providencia. We poked around here for a bit, finding a few Emerald Swifts (Sceloporus malachiticus), a type of Fence Lizard found in the highlands of Central America.

Emerald Swift (Sceloporus malachiticus) - Km 76 Road, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

A nice flock of birds here included our first Dark Pewees and some White-throated Mountain-Gems. We spotted a pair of Slaty Finches (always a scarce species, it seems!) and struck out again on American Dippers. We turned around after lunch, making the short drive back up the mountain in good time with 56 bird species on our checklist.

That afternoon we returned to Retiro El Sanctuario. We walked the road a few times, explored one of the trails and relaxed by the fireplace inside the main building. Bird-wise, we observed our first Golden-browed Chlorophonias and Black-thighed Grosbeaks. Chlorophonias are spectacularly plumaged goldfinch-like birds native to the mountains of Central and South America and this species ranks favourably among the prettiest.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

At Retiro El Sanctuario the hummingbird diversity is not particularly high. Fiery-throated and Talamanca Hummingbirds are relatively common, along with good numbers of Volcano Humminbirds and occasional White-throated Mountain-Gems and Scintillant Hummingbirds. Below is a Volcano Hummingbird. Care must be taken to separate this species from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird, especially the young males and the females.

Volcano Hummingbird - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Yellow-bellied Siskins were commonly noted in these mountains, though most sightings were of birds high in the treetops. This one decided to forage on the ground, providing excellent views.

Yellow-bellied Siskin - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

The thrush diversity along the entrance road to Retiro El Sanctuario was impressive. Sooty Thrush, Clay-coloured Thrush and Mountain Thrush could all be found with ease, while three species of nightingale-thrushes also were present. Below is the Sooty Thrush, a species restricted to the highest elevations in the Cordillera de Talamanca. It was somewhat reminiscent of the Great Thrush from South America.

Sooty Thrush - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Sooty Thrush - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Acorn Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers were the two common representatives of this family. Unfortunately I was never able to obtain a good photo of a brown-bellied Hairy Woodpecker, but the Acorn Woodpeckers were fairly accommodating. The forests here contain a high percentage of Oak (Quercus sp.), a preferred food source for this species.

Acorn Woodpecker - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

That evening we enjoyed an excellent home cooked pizza along with some good wine that Laura and I had brought along.

Feeling up for a walk, I headed out with my flashlight after dusk to search for owls and nightjars, mainly. I had no luck with owls but several Dusky Nightjars sang somewhere off in the distance. As I headed up the road, a strange sound caught my attention from the nearby foliage. It sounded vaguely guan-like but did not match the calls of the Black Guan. With some persistence I was able to find the culprit. It was a Cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti), also sometimes known as the Southern Ringtail Cat. This was very exciting, and a new species for me. Despite looking somewhat feline, the Cacomistle is in the raccoon family which also includes coatis and kinkajous.

Cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti) - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Before I called it a night I had some success with Dusky Nightjar as well. One individual was calling from eye-level beside the road and tolerated my approach. A great way to cap off an awesome day!

Dusky Nightjar - Retiro El Sanctuario, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Unfortunately, we only could budget two nights here before it was time to move on, but we had seen many great species including most of my targets. And we would have more chances at the ones we missed.

We left Retiro El Sanctuario in the morning and began the long drive towards the Osa Peninsula. Before we left these mountains, we had one more stop to make.

The highest accessible part of the Cordillera de Talamanca is an area near some radio towers called Cerro de la Muerte. Here, a gravel road ascends towards páramo-like habitat, home to a few rare bird species such as the Timberline Wren, Volcano Junco and Peg-billed Finch. Laura and I rolled into the area at 8 AM. The calm, sunny morning gave us hope!

 Cerro de la Muerte, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

As you can see in the photo below, it did not take us long to find our first Volcano Junco (rather, it found us!). They proved to be quite common on the mountain, perhaps even the most common passerine species.

Volcano Junco - Cerro de la Muerte, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

Here is a closeup of a spiffy individual. Volcano Juncos have piercing yellow eyes that are forward-facing, like a hawk. They really are a comical little species to watch!

Volcano Junco - Cerro de la Muerte, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

We explored a side-trail oft-mentioned in trip reports. This trail is located about 1/3 of the way to the communication towers and wanders off through scrubby vegetation. We tried this area specifically to search for the Peg-billed Finch, but had no luck. At least the Timberline Wrens here were common and I eventually managed a "record photo" of one singing.

Timberline Wren - Cerro de la Muerte, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

After walking along this side-trail, we drove up the communication towers, looking and listening for the Peg-billed Finch along the way. Despite our best efforts we were unable to find any over the next hour and a half and we eventually had to concede defeat. At least there were some stunning Emerald Swifts to feat our eyes on.

Emerald Swift (Sceloporus malachiticus) - Cerro de la Muerte, PN Los Quetzales, San José, Costa Rica

We left the Cordillera de Talamanca behind, happy with our forty-eight hours well-spent here. The Osa Peninsula waited, with a completely new suite of species to search for in these steamy lowlands. That will be the topic of my next two posts.

No comments: