Monday 21 September 2020

The Arenal Area


We drove west from Guapiles, making decent time as we motored away from the Caribbean coast. Eventually the Arenal Volcano rose up from beyond the horizon, its shape taking a fuller form as we approached from the east. Arenal Volcano - a stratovolcano situated along the northern part of the Cordillera de Guanacaste (Guanacaste mountain range) - is one of the top 10 active volcanoes in the world. Many thousands of tourists venture to this part of the country each year and it was obvious that the nearby town of La Fortuna was set up almost entirely for gringo tourism. 

The throngs of tourists ensured that hotel rooms and restaurants would be expensive, but alas, that is the price to pay to explore the forests of Costa Rica. With only a few days remaining until Laura and I needed to bring the rental car back to San José we decided to spend out time here. Arenal held a few bird species that I was hoping to see, while it was also a good base to explore some of the vast swaths of Caribbean foothill forest located south of here.

Border Anole (Anolis limifrons) - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Upon arrival in the early afternoon we dropped in to Sendero Bogarín located on the edge of La Fortuna. Sendero Bogarín is a small tract of protected forest with dirt footpaths snaking through the lush vegetation. Famous for its large population of Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths, Sendero Bogarín is also home to a variety of birdlife - surprising diversity given the small size of the woodlot. Our friend Victor recommended this location, a convenient spot since our hotel was only a few minutes away. 

We paid our 10 USD per person entrance fees and began exploring. White-collared Manakin was one of the birds we were hoping to see here and they were far from difficult! Thanks to the distinctive popping sounds created by the lekking males, we easily tracked down a few individuals within minutes of our arrival.

White-collared Manakin - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Like many manakin species White-collared Manakin males will gather in a small group known as a lek, where they will perform their dances in front of a female or two watching furtively from the sidelines. The strange popping sounds are non-vocal; rather, they are created by the wings. Different manakin species have evolved different mechanisms to create these popping or whirring sounds.  

White-collared Manakin - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

The birding was a little slow initially so we focused on scanning for sloths and lizards. Brown Basilisk was the default species but later in the afternoon we encountered a Green Basilisk. It was a new species for us, and my fourth and final representative of the genus Basiliscus. 

Brown Basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus) - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Green Basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

As I mentioned before, most tourists visit Sendero Bogarín for the sloths, of which there are many. We spotted three or four Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths during the course of the afternoon including one individual that came down out of the canopy - one of the best looks we have had of this species!

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Speaking of mammals, a photogenic Variegated Squirrel...

Variegated Squirrel - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

One of the birds I was hoping to encounter at Sendero Bogarín was the shy and secretive Uniform Crake. This species prefers the dark understory of swampy broadleaf forest and a few individuals make their home here. I heard one individual vocalizing early in the walk but a couple of hours later, we turned a corner and I witnessed a dark shape scurry along the edge of a small creek bed. With some patience we were able to spot the culprit - a Uniform Crake! It fed only a few meters from us, allowing me to take a crack at some photos, a difficult proposition in the dark environment.

Uniform Crake - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

New bird species kept appearing such as Great Curassow, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (roosting in a tree), Laughing Falcon, Black-throated Wren, Ovenbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and more. The Great Curassow was quite the surprise. It was a male that flew down out of a tree and strutted across the path. 

Great Curassow - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Laughing Falcon - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

One more obligatory sloth photo...

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

One of the last new birds for our eBird checklist was this Smoky-brown Woodpecker. We finished with an even 60 bird species, quite a surprising number considering how small the area was, and the time of day for our visit. 

Smoky-brown Woodpecker - Sendero Bogarín, La Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica

The Caribbean slope of Costa Rica holds many of the most highly sought after bird species found in the country. There are countless fantastic places where one can explore these habitats from the Arenal area all the way south/east to the Panama border, including two great field stations found in this part of the country - San Gerardo and Pocosol. Unfortunately, Laura and I did not have time to visit these stations during our loop with the rental car. Besides, we were planning on exploring San Gerardo and several other areas in a few weeks anyways (little did we know that a global pandemic would mess up these plans). But with one full day available to us, we chose to visit the entrance road to the University of Costa Rica's Alberto Manuel Brenes Reserve. It was located just over an hour south of our hotel in La Fortuna.

Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

I had a relatively small hit list of target birds for Manuel Brenes. Among a few more common species (Thicket Antpitta, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Crimson-collared Tanager) I was also hoping for Bare-necked Umbrellabird or Tawny-chested Flycatcher, two highly sought after species that have occurred here, but I struck out on both fronts. But really, we were just looking to spend the day walking among beautiful forest surrounded by wildlife and away from other people. In that case, the day was a complete success.  

Anolis sp. - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

We left La Fortuna before 5 AM, arriving at the start of the road to the Manuel Brenes reserve by dawn. We parked our car a few hundred meters in and walked along the gravel road for a while, eventually tracking back to the car. We then drove quite a ways along the bumpy road until we were within shooting distance of the Manuel Brenes reserve, parked again, and walked over a bridge and up a steep hill to the reserve gate and back. This seemed to be a pretty good strategy since we encountered quite a few birds - over 100 species for the day. The weather was a bit iffy, with persistent light rain muting the birds for the first hour or so of the morning, but eventually the rain lifted and we enjoyed a fantastic day of exploration.

Early on it was a good day for raptors. A pair of Gray-headed Kites were consorting over the road and one perched long enough for some excellent views through the binoculars. A bit later, a photogenic White Hawk also obliged us by sitting out in the open. This was a lifer for Laura, and a pretty spectacular view of this beautiful species. 

Gray-headed Kite - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

White Hawk - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Early on I encountered two new bird species (Thicket Antpitta, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush) though unfortunately, both were heard only. The beginning stretches of the road passed through disturbed areas, full of cecropias and tangles. While these habitats are not ideal for some of the rare forest birds I was hoping to see, they can often be good for a high diversity of common species. The Thicket Antpittas were particularly common but we picked up many other species. These included Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Dusky Antbird, Northern Bentbill, my "lifer" Rufous-winged Woodpecker and even a few migrants from the north (Golden-winged Warbler, Wilson's Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher). 

Northern Bentbill - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

A few trucks passed us during the morning but mostly, we had the place to ourselves. It was glorious! Just us and the wildlife. 

Centropogon granulosus - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

By late morning we hit a lull in the bird activity, and this lasted for several hours. We pressed on and slowly added new species here and there including this photogenic Montezuma Oropendola. 

Montezuma Oropendola - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

We passed a small village and hiked down into a valley where a fast-flowing mountain stream coursed by. From the bridge we waited for a bit in hopes of spotting a Fasciated Tiger-Heron or a mixed flock of songbirds, though we were unsuccessful on both fronts. We then hiked up the road to the entrance gate for the reserve, before our grumbling stomachs were just cause to retrace our steps back to the car. 

Eurybia unxia - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Before passing through the small village close to where we had parked, a flash of red caught my attention by a small stream. It revealed itself as a stunning Crimson-collared Tanager. This uncommon species ranges from southern Mexico to western Panama in the Caribbean lowlands, and it was a new species for both of us. 

Crimson-collared Tanager - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Despite the success of the day we had not encountered a single mixed flock large enough to merit mention. This changed as we drove back out towards the highway. A few birds flew across the road which grabbed my attention. Fortunately, I stopped the car to investigate. We caught the tail end of a large mixed flock of bird species!

White-ruffed Manakin - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Without a doubt the highlight here was a single Blue-and-gold Tanager that hung around long enough for photos. This rare species is quite local in the foothills of Costa Rica and Panama and is one of the more highly sought species at Manuel Brenes. 
Blue-and-gold Tanager - Camino a la Reserva Alberto Manuel Brenes, Alajuela, Costa Rica

The mixed flock gave us a chance to pad our day list with species like Bay-headed and Emerald Tanagers, White-ruffed Manakin, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops, and it was a nice way to close out an excellent day at Manuel Brenes. 

For our final morning in the Arenal area we chose to explore a road that cuts through nice forest directly west of the Arenal Volcano - on eBird the hotspot is called "Arenal--Peninsula road (shortcut to dam)". If we had more time we would have explored the trails at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, but we figured it would only be worth it to spend the entrance fee if we could devote a full day there. Regardless, our morning along the peninsula road was well-worth it with some great birds!

Spotted Antbird - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Laura and I slept in since the previous morning had been an early one and it was after 9 AM when we finally rolled up to the area. While we had missed the dawn chorus at least the sky was cloudy. We hoped that this would prolong bird activity.

Keel-billed Toucan - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

The first bit of excitement for me was caused by a Rufous-winged Woodpecker that flew into a roadside tree. I had seen this species ever so briefly the previous day; this experience felt a lot better for a life bird. 

Rufous-winged Woodpecker - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

A little while later we heard an interesting bird call that sounded very similar to Broad-billed Motmot. This Arenal area is known to provide habitat for the Keel-billed Motmot, a rare species with a disjunct range in Caribbean lowlands of Central America. The two species sound very similar (I still can't confidently tell them apart) but the Keel-billed looks very different. Laura and I were in luck as we tracked down the bird. Indeed, it was a pair of Keel-billed Motmots (along with a pair of Broad-billed Motmots!). 

Keel-billed Motmot - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

It had been a great morning but things kept getting better. We noticed an army ant swarm crossing the road and parked ourselves here for almost an hour as the birding was fantastic. As any birder who has visited the Neotropics can attest to, army ant swarms are an excellent way to see certain secretive species that are almost never seen away from these swarms. These obligate ant swarm birds do not feed on the ants; rather, they catch insects and small vertebrates that get disturbed by the wriggling mass of ants. 

Red-throated Ant-Tanager - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

This particular swarm was attended by Bare-crowned and Spotted Antbirds, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Northern Schiffornis and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. A small mixed flock containing Russet Antshrike and others moved through the treetops while we were glassing the antbirds. Meanwhile, a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons sat motionless on the other side of the road. Just super enjoyable birding!

Spotted Antbird - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Northern Barred-Woodcreeper - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Slaty-tailed Trogon - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Bare-crowned Antbird - Arenal area, Alajuela, Costa Rica

And with that, we hit the road back to San José. Our thirteen days with the rental car was coming to an end but we still had a lot of exploration to look forward to. My parents were flying in from Toronto for March Break and we were hoping to visit some other awesome places, including the famous La Selva Biological Station. Stay tuned!

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