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!


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