Friday 28 August 2020

Lattice-tailed Trogons and Quail-Doves of Braulio Carrillo


We left Tapantí and the Orosi Valley behind and began making our way west towards San José, arriving by mid-morning. Our final destination would be the town of Guapiles, located within the Caribbean slope lowlands, as it appeared to be a good base to explore the nearby Quebrada Gonzales, a trail at Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. Before turning north and leaving San José to cross the mountains, we made a quick stop in the Barva area, a suburb of San José. The elusive Cabanis's Ground-Sparrow had evaded us during a search in Cartago a few days earlier, but apparently the dry scrubby forest near a rec center had become reliable for this species in recent years. 

Red-billed Pigeon - Barva area, Heredia, Costa Rica

Our mid-morning arrival time was not ideal but at least there remained a solid amount of bird activity. We heard the target bird on a couple of occasions, and I'm pretty sure I saw an individual fly across the road in front of me, but that was the extent of our success. These birds can be tricky! At least the Hoffman's Woodpeckers were quite easy to observe well - a species that we had only seen once before, earlier in the trip in Cartago. 

Hoffman's Woodpecker - Barva area, Heredia, Costa Rica

Hoffman's Woodpecker - Barva area, Heredia, Costa Rica

We left the hustle and bustle of this area behind and headed into the mountains. Birding a scrubby roadside next to a very busy rec center and surrounded by suburbs is not my ideal place to go birding, that's for sure!

Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo is a large swath of protected foothill and premontane forest located on the eastern slope, north and east of San José. Due to the mountainous terrain there are only a few areas where one can access the forest, and one popular spot among birders is a trail at a ranger station known as Quebrada Gonzales. We hoped to take the afternoon to scout out the place, attempt to arrange early access for the following morning, and also explore a nearby hummingbird garden called Reserva El Tapir. 

We initially had a difficult time finding Reserva El Tapir off of the main highway but eventually succeeded. Formerly a hummingbird garden/ecotourism venture, it has been abandoned for several years now but the flourishing porterweed around the property still attracts a number of hummingbirds. El Tapir is not signed from the highway but birders seem to have no problem visiting, so we gave it a shot. We ran into a caretaker for the place and later, a few researchers who were studying thrushes on their wintering grounds. Everyone seemed confused how we heard of the place since it is apparently closed down, but they let us hang around for a while and watch the porterweed. Worked for me!

My main goal was to come across the Black-crested Coquette, a species that is regular here. We did not have to wait long and ended up watching a male buzz around the flowers for quite some time.

Black-crested Coquette - Reserva El Tapir, Limón, Costa Rica

Black-crested Coquette - Reserva El Tapir, Limón, Costa Rica

In our short visit we did not detect any Snowcaps (an uncommon hummingbird found in the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama that is supposedly regular here), but we noted several other neat hummingbirds including Green Thorntail and Violet-headed Hummingbird.

Green Thorntail - Reserva El Tapir, Limón, Costa Rica

Violet-headed Hummingbird - Reserva El Tapir, Limón, Costa Rica

Happy with our short visit, we merged onto the freshly paved highway and continued east into the lowlands. Just as the road begins to level off, one reaches the city of Guapiles. This area certainly doesn't feel like it is on the tourist route and Laura and I felt like we were back in Colombia again. It was kind of nice to not see gringos everywhere, and the resulting overpriced restaurants! We checked into our hotel room that was pretty reasonably priced for Costa Rica, and enjoyed the air conditioning in the room. 

It is funny how certain things seem like luxuries when one is traveling. Here, having A/C gave us the opportunity to do our laundry and have it dry relatively fast. Ah, what luxury.

That evening we were feeling a bit restless and so we went for a walk down some side roads near the hotel. The walk was quite birdy with many species typical of secondary forest or weedy, disturbed areas appearing in front of us.

Gray-capped Flycatcher - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew over in small flocks, allowing me to take my first ever (crappy) photos of this species. 

Crimson-fronted Parakeets - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Piratic Flycatcher - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

We even added some new birds to our Costa Rica list during this short walk including White-throated Crake, Bay Wren, and House Sparrow.

Yellow Warbler - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Blue-black Grosbeaks were particularly common in the weedy fields. I was hoping for Gray-crowned Yellowthroat or Black-throated Wren as well, two species I had never seen before, but that was not to be.

Blue-black Grosbeak - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Scarlet-rumped Tanager - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Laura has a knack for finding hidden birds, mammals, snakes, etc in trees. This time she casually pointed out a Hoffman's Two-toed Sloth snoozing above a roadside creek. 

Hoffman's Two-toed Sloth - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

The next morning we woke early and made the short drive back into the foothills to Quebrada Gonzales. The previous afternoon we had stopped in and inquired with one of the rangers about us visiting earlier, since they had the standard opening time of 8:00 AM. He was ok with opening the gate for us at 6 AM. It is always worth asking!

Quebrada Gonzales - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

An early start is necessary here if one wants to find a lot of bird species, since Quebrada Gonzales is only around 500 meters above sea level. Only one trail has been cut here, a small loop that gains some elevation but is generally very easy to navigate. In some areas there is good visibility into the understorey or midstorey levels. 

Birding at Quebrada Gonzales - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

I had a number of bird species on my wish list for the morning, of which Olive-backed Quail-Dove and Lattice-tailed Trogon were top of the list. This would most likely be our only time exploring the Caribbean foothills at this elevation on the trip. 

The morning began with calm conditions and a decent amount of birdsong. A Streak-chested Antpitta belted out his song from somewhere unseen, as did a Streak-crowned Antvireo, a new one for us. We rounded a corner and a dark shape furtively moved to the side of the path. Fortunately for us it walked back onto the trail and I quickly realized it was one my main target species - an Olive-backed Quail-Dove! Walking quiet forest tracks early in the morning sure has its perks. 

Olive-backed Quail-Dove - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

The great birds continued to appear before us. A male Snowcap perched at the top of a dead snag for a few seconds before flying off. A nice variety of wren species included some relatively tame Stripe-breasted Wrens. And little groups of Tawny-crested Tanagers moved through the low tangles. 

Stripe-breasted Wren - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Tawny-crested Tanagers - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

A little while later we encountered a mixed flock. As is usually the case it starts with one or two birds, which becomes ten birds, and within a few minutes you are surrounded by them! I heard the tell-tale call notes of a White-throated Shrike-Tanager - a species that often leads mixed flocks - and Laura and I enjoyed excellent looks at this unique species. We ended up observing at least three individuals with mixed flocks throughout the morning, and other birders seem to echo that sentiment that the species is quite reliable here.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

While we were watching the flock I noticed two tiny parrotlets fly over, calling. I deduced that they were Red-fronted Parrotlets, a species that I had never seen before. This species is generally quite scarce and difficult to find across its range which includes the mountains of western Panama and Costa Rica so it was a nice surprise to see at Quebrada Gonzales! If only the looks were better than two tiny backlit parrotlets...

We were just past the halfway point of the loop when Laura made an exciting discovery - a small snake at the edge of the trail! This is a Lower-montane Green Racer (Drymobius melanotropis). 

Lower-montane Green Racer (Drymobius melanotropus) - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Lizards began appearing in sunny patches as we completed the loop, now that the sun had crested the mountains. 

Holcosus festivus - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Our quail-dove luck continued a few minutes later when I spotted a dark shape roosting down the slope. I finally managed an angle through the maze of branches and we realized that this was the rarest of the three quail-doves found here - the Chiriqui Quail-Dove. 

Chiriqui Quail-Dove - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

The action did not end there! We found another mixed flock which contained many of the same species from earlier in the morning. I moved off the trail after chasing down a weird sounding trogon and stumbled across a small antswarm. I quickly got Laura's attention and we enjoyed watching Bicolored, Spotted and Ocellated Antbirds!

Bicolored Antbird - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

We even heard a Lattice-tailed Trogon singing from here - that was what originally called me off of the trail - but it would not appear for us. 

Anolis sp. - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

We finished the loop by hearing and seeing our first Nightingale Wren in a trailside tangle, capping off a very successful loop. My only regret is that we did not see a Lattice-tailed Trogon. 

We grabbed food from the car and relaxed for a bit before heading back into the forest for another loop. It was getting close to mid-day and a few other tourists were arriving, eager to enjoy what was turning into a beautiful day. 

The warmer temperatures limited bird activity on our second loop and we only added a few new species to the day-list. Butterfly watching remained excellent, however.

Nessaea sp. - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Only 1/3 of the way around the loop I heard the song of another Lattice-tailed Trogon. I was not about to let this one get away and indeed, a few minutes later we were looking at him, singing from his perch in the middle branches of a large tree.

Lattice-tailed Trogon - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

The Lattice-tailed Trogon is thinly distributed, mainly in the lower foothills on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and western Panama. It isn't easily found in too many locations and Quebrada Gonzales is one of the main areas that visiting birders try for this species. Even still, quite a few birders "dip" on it here as well. 

We really enjoyed our time with this Lattice-tailed, studying the intricacies of its plumage and its song. 

Lattice-tailed Trogon - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

The rest of the loop was relatively uneventful, though we did walk through one other mixed flock that contained a Cinnamon Woodpecker and a few other new species. 

Cinnamon Woodpecker - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Mostly though, we watched for insects and herps near the end of the hike as the day had really warmed up.
Tybalmia sp. - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Anolis limifrons - PN Braulio Carrillo, San José, Costa Rica

Quebrada Gonzales was an excellent stop for us, one that we really enjoyed. It is too bad that there is only the one loop trail but in our experience it was largely devoid of other tourists and quite birdy (and herpy!). If you can speak a little Spanish, it is definitely worth it to ask one of the rangers about visiting early the next morning, since it makes all the difference at this elevation. 

I will close this post with a few photos that I took the next morning around the hotel in Guapiles. I observed 58 species in an hour the next morning, which is the same total number of species that we found in our entire morning at Quebrada Gonzales. It just goes to show how easy it is to rack up a big list in disturbed habitats in the lowlands, compared to the generally difficult birding deep in the forest (even though, in the long run, there is much more diversity to see in the forest). 

I lucked into my first pair of Gray-crowned Yellowthroats in a field beside the hotel; a great start to my walk. I also heard my first Black-throated Wrens in a few locations as well.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

This warbler caused me to give it a second look - a nice Mourning Warbler. 

Mourning Warbler - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

I added about a dozen new birds to my Costa Rica list in this short walk - mostly, common lowland species - including this Gray Hawk. 

Gray Hawk - Guapiles, Limón, Costa Rica

Laura and I enjoyed breakfast at the hotel and then hit the road, hoping to make it to the Arenal area sometime after lunchtime. 

Monday 17 August 2020

Exploring Tapantí - Dippers and More!


Tapantí National Park - or, as it is officially titled, Parque Nacional Tapantí - Macizo Cerro de la Muerte - protects a swath of forest at the edge of the Talamanca Range in Central Costa Rica. The park runs along the Orosí River and contains pre-montane and lower montane rainforest ecotypes. It is connected to many other parks and reserves, forming nearly continuous forest all the way to the Panama border which represents one of the largest tracts of intact forest in Central America. 

Laura and I were interested in visiting this park for several reasons. First, its geographic location was perfect, since it can be easily accessed from the east side of San José and was located along our intended driving route. Second, as mentioned above it contains high quality forest, giving us a chance at a number of interesting bird species including Prong-billed Barbet, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Sooty-faced Finch and more. Basically anything would be possible, given how much rainforest is connected to Tapantí. And third, Tapantí is not as popular with tourists as some of the other national parks in Costa Rica, meaning that we would have less people to deal with while on the trails. 

Mesosemia grandis - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

After two months of birding around Colombia, exploring Costa Rica was a bit of a change for us. In Colombia ecotourism is not as prevalent (apart from at a few popular locations) and so it is very easy to visit amazing places for a small fee, if any. In Costa Rica there may be more protected areas, but the entrance fees are often ridiculously high. Additionally, for some inexplicable reason most national parks and even private reserves do not open until 8 AM, meaning that the best two-three hours of the morning are behind you before you can even begin birding. However, we had heard that certain places were willing to open their gates early for birders and so we attempted this at Tapantí. We rolled up to the park gate in the late afternoon and met a friendly forest ranger. We chit-chatted in Spanish with him for a bit and inquired about us entering the park early the next morning. He said it was not a problem and so we arranged for a 7 AM entry (as Tapantí is in the mountains, a 5:30 AM start time was not crucial for us). We paid our fee and headed back towards our hostel in Orosí to spend the night. That was easy!

Orosí River - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

It is about a ten minute drive from the town of Orosí to the park gates, and much of this drive is through rolling countryside interspersed with coffee and eucalyptus plantations. The mature forest begins a few hundred meters before the park gate and once inside, it feels like you are miles away from civilization. We waved to the forest ranger as he let us through the gates and for the first two hours or so we had the park to ourselves!

Tapantí is popular among birders as a location to search for several antpitta species which can be tricky to find in Costa Rica - Scaled and Ochre-breasted. Since I had seen these species in Colombia and Ecuador they were not high on my target list, but there were other skulkers that I was hoping to come across. Early on we got lucky with a Chiriqui Quail-Dove along the Oropendola Trail, as I flushed one and watched it walk through the thick undergrowth. An hour later, Laura spotted one on the side of the road that I just missed.  Ochraceous Wrens were heard singing from the midlevels of the trees, while a few mixed flocks contained tons of Common Chlorospingus (and not much else). 

Ochraceous Wren - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Lithobates warszewitschii - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

The birding was a little slow going at first as flocks failed to materialize and there wasn't much singing, but we slowly added things as we walked. Hummingbirds were well-represented with all three species of mountain-gems seen well, a Green-fronted Lancebill hunting midges over the Orosí River, and a single Black-bellied Hummingbird seen early on. I expected to come across more of them, but alas, that would be all we would get!

White-bellied Mountain-gem - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

We finished the Oropendola Trail and walked along the road, slowly gaining elevation as we hiked. It was still early and no other tourists were in the park. Glorious! A few mixed flocks appeared and we added species like Spotted Barbtail, Eye-ringed Flatbill and Tawny-capped Euphonia, along with one of my main targets - the attractive Spangle-cheeked Tanager. These proved to be relatively common in mixed flocks. While we explored, the flutey songs of Black-faced Solitaires descended from the lush hillsides above us. We even heard the bizarre calls of some distant Prong-billed Barbets. 

Spotted Barbtail - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Tawny-capped Euphonia - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Spangle-cheeked Tanager - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Laura noticed movement beside the road and with a bit of patience we were able to locate a Black Guan, doing its best to remain motionless (somewhat unsuccessfully). There were too many branches in the way for a clear photo, however.

Black Guan - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Since we had spent the better part of the last four days in the hot Pacific lowlands, the cool, misty environs of Tapantí were just what we needed. Even as noon approached, the air temperature remained manageable and the birds stayed active. 

Coprinellus disseminatus - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

A brief sojourn away from the road led steeply down the side of the valley to the Orosí River and in about 10 minutes we had lost all of the elevation that we had gained over the previous two hours. Our scan for American Dippers here was unsuccessful but a small flock of birds in the understorey contained two new species for us: Costa Rican Warbler and Sooty-faced Finch!

Costa Rican Warbler - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

With our stomachs grumbling we retraced our steps back to where we had parked and enjoyed leftover pizza from the night before. Feeling refreshed and with a few hours remaining until the park closed, we set off on our quest to find American Dippers. 

The American Dipper is one of five species in the unique bird family Cinclidae. These birds find habitat alongside moderate to fast flowing rivers, utilizing their strong feet and sharp claws to cling to the slippery rocks. The American Dipper can fully submerge itself and walk underwater, using its wings for steering and balance as it searches for invertebrate morsels. I had seen this behaviour before with the White-throated Dipper of Eurasia, but I had never crossed paths with the American Dipper before. 

Orosí River - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Throughout the morning we had scanned the Orosí River whenever we had a good vantage point but had come up empty each time. However, our luck was about to change. We explored a section of river not too far from the park gates and immediately struck gold. Not one, but two American Dippers busily foraging in a relatively flat, calm stretch of the river. 

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

We were not disappointed as we watched both individuals actively hunting. They would stick their heads in the water and dive down to catch whatever it was they had seen. Often the birds would swim in the open river between hunting forays. 

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Eventually we realized that this pair of birds had a nest within a clump of moss on a mid-river boulder! This was the final destination for most of the invertebrates that were captured. In the photo below, the nest is just to the left and above the bird, in the moss. 

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Interestingly, one of the birds would always stand guard while the other one was busy feeding. At one point a third American Dipper appeared from somewhere downriver, and one of the "original" birds took off and chased away the usurper. With the threat dispatched, both birds resumed their foraging activities to feed the hungry mouths that depended on them. 

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

American Dipper - Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica

While I would have been happy to have just seen one dipper along a distant riverbank, this was much more satisfying. Picking our "bird of the day" was an easy decision for both Laura and I!