18-22 April 2014
The Monteverde area is one of the most famous birding destinations in Costa Rica, famously home to the Resplendent Quetzal as well as less sexy birds such as Highland Tinamou, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Gray-throated Leaftosser, and more. With a list like this, several great reserves to bird, and a comfy town with all sorts of gringo-approved cafes, of course we were eager to do a little birding in the area. With a book full of birding advice from Pat O’Donnell we hit up some lesser-known spots in the Monteverde area. Our first stop was Curi-cancha Reserve, a smaller reserve located a few kilometers from the Monteverde Reserve, that has several kilometers of well-maintained trails, access some drier premontane forest as well as cloud forest, and has about 5-10% of the crowds of Monteverde. The reserve opens at 7:00 am, which is less than ideal for birding given a 5:15AM sunrise, but the majority of reserves we’ve been to so far in Costa Rica open 2-3 hours after sunrise. We’ve asked for advanced permission to enter earlier at some reserves and have had mixed success, but it is certainly worth trying anywhere you go. Curi-cancha would not entertain an early entrance without a guide. Despite our late start on the trails, we managed a full day of birding with a full list of birds (eBird list). The hummingbird feeders in the central clearing brought us great looks at Purple-throated Mountain Gem, the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing, and Scintillant Hummingbird. We also had fantastic looks at several Gray-throated Leaftossers, which were easy to locate by listening for rustling in the dry leaf litter in the lower areas. Just as their name implies they scurry along the forest floor frantically tossing leaves out of the way in search of breakfast. Thanks again to the dry leaf litter we also had the fantastic luck to come across two separate coveys of Black-breasted Wood-Quail. The upper trails provide access to cloud forest where you can hear the echoing chorus of Prong-billed Barbets in the distance and Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes can be found hoping along the trail. Be careful though, because Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes are also in the area and are the more common species in the lower areas of the reserve. While we cannot compare Curi-cancha to the Monteverde Reserve, we think Curi-cancha is definitely worth a visit. We ultimately decided to skip the Monteverde Reserve because they charge a steep $18 per person entry fee, the reserve is typically loaded with tourists (average 300 visitors per day), and the reserve does not open until 7:00 am and closes at 4:00 pm.
Another fabulous reserve in the area is the Santa Elena Reserve which has an extensive and well-maintained trail system through excellent cloud forest. Perhaps the thing that Santa Elena is most famous for is the Three-wattled Bellbird. Their fantastically loud and odd calls can be heard ringing through the forest during the dry season, but getting a good look is another story. Three-wattled Bellbirds perch at the top of the canopy and call incessantly, but from below the canopy, they can be difficult to locate. A couple of years back, in Panama, we spent several days wandering around the forest looking for windows up into the canopy trying to see Three-wattled Bellbirds that were obviously directly above us, but in the end I only ended up seeing a fleeting glimpse of the bird as it flew from the tree tops. We tried again in Santa Elena, but no matter how long we craned our necks to the tops of the canopy we could not get a glimpse of the bellbird. Not only are they bizarre sounding, these are crazy looking birds with three little worm-like things (wattles) that dangle from their faces. Bellbirds perch on the snaggy top of the tallest tree around, unfurl their wattles (which they can retract or extend!), tilt their head back, open their mouth wide, and… wait for it, nothing at first. They perch there, appearing to be in mid scream, but the super loud “Bonk” does not come for several seconds, making them look even more ridiculous but making for great photos if you can get a clear view of one. They must be doing something right though, as their call can be heard from over ½ mile away and is one of the loudest of all bird songs. Three-wattled Bellbirds also undertake a strange altitudinal migration in Costa Rica, leaving the breeding grounds and descending to the Pacific foothills for a while, and then head back over the continental divide to the Atlantic lowlands, before heading back up to the foothills and cloud forest to breed. A wandering, altitudinal migration such as this is hard to pull off in todays world of deforestation and forest patches rather than continuous forests, leaving them with little habitat to make the journey. Bellbirds aside, we had a great day of birding (eBird list).
A fantastic antswarm provided looks at Spotted Barbtail, Three-striped Warbler, Streak-breasted Treehunter, and Buffy Tuftedcheek, as well as a few ant bites J. Other highlights at Santa Elena include Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Azure-hooded Jay, Ruddy Treerunner, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Red-faced Spinetail.
After Santa Elena we headed to the San Gerardo Field Station in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a destination we were told not to miss and we could not agree more! This is absolutely an amazing birding destination and ranks as one of the absolute best not just in Costa Rica but in all of Central America. The San Gerardo Field Station sits at approximately 1400 meters on the Caribbean slope and is accessed by an easy but very muddy 4 km hike down from Santa Elena. We woke up at 4:00 am, threw together a quick breakfast, grabbed our gear, and headed down the slick and muddy road towards the field station. As we started hiking down the road, the mist turned to blowing rain and the mud started building up on our boots. We should have brought a slide to get down to the station, but instead we did our best to spot a few birds in the blowing rain as we made our way down the hill, doing some creative dance moves every time we slipped but miraculously never ending up on our butts (It’s not really THAT bad but good boots with good traction are mandatory for the hike and rubber boots would be better). Although the weather put a damper on things for us, we did manage fleeting looks at a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. And … just a few hundred meters before the station we arrived at a look-out over the forest and FINALLY saw one distantly perched Three-wattled Bellbird!
Once we arrived at the clearing for the station we were momentarily delayed by a Slaty Spinetail singing from just a few meters away. He quickly worked his way up some tangled vines and into the open giving us great views. We headed inside and dropped our packs. I hadn’t even gotten all my wet gear off when Josh yelled from the deck of the bunkhouse “come quick”. I ran out of the room while Josh in a panic tells me that he has a large dark raptor with a single white tail band – potentially just a Common Black Hawk but also potentially a Solitary Eagle. I pick up my bins and a large raptor that instantly looks like an eagle and not a hawk soars through my binoculars. What, no way! Solitary Eagles are like unicorns, people claim they exist and there are drawings of them in books, but sightings are incredibly rare. You cannot just rock up and have your third bird be a Solitary Eagle seen from the porch! But there it was, displaying enough field marks to peg it to a Solitary Eagle – large, long, broad wings that do not bulge in the secondaries, giving a flight profile much more like a Golden Eagle than like a Buteo, and one clear white tail band with no white on the uppertail coverts, ruling out Great Black Hawk which otherwise is closer to Solitary Eagle in shape. We didn’t get a good read on color (Solitary Eagle is more of a slaty gray than either Black Hawk), nor were we able to get pictures, as the camera was packed up in a dry bag buried in a backpack. Unfortunately we only got about 20 seconds of views before it wheeled around the ridge in front of us and out of view. We could hardly believe our eyes though and spent the next few minutes making sure that we were not crazy. Did we really just see that? Yes, I think we did! Our looks at the Solitary Eagle were brief, but totally amazing! If Three-wattled Bellbird was our first bird and Solitary Eagle was our third bird at San Gerardo we knew the birding here was going to be spectacular.
After the excitement of the eagle and after unpacking a bit and drying off, we headed out on the Tabacón trail to do a little recon for the following morning. The Tabacón trail leads to the Pajaro Sombrilla trail which winds around on a little plateau in gorgeous primary rainforest and is the only known lekking site of the fantastic and unfortunately critically endangered Bare-necked Umbrellabird. We wanted to scout out the area to be sure we knew exactly where to go look in the morning, as the Umbrellabird only lek in March and April and only from first light until about ½ hour after sunrise, meaning we needed to get a predawn start and be down in the forest in the right place at first light. If you thought Three-wattled Bellbirds were bizarre, take a look at the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, which appears to be designed by Dr Seuss with hair inspired by the 80’s. These pompadours occur only in Costa Rica and Panama and, like the Three-wattled Bellbird, undertake an altitudinal migration, breeding in foothill forest and spending the winter in lowland tropical forest. They are far more sensitive to disturbance than the Bellbird, unfortunately, and require large tracts of contiguous primary forest connecting both the highlands and the lowlands. They will not leave the forest, they will not fly over a cattle pasture or corn field clearing, they will only stick within mature forest. Bare-necked Umbrellabirds also form leks (a group of displaying males) during the breeding season to attract mates. They perch in the sub-canopy and inflate the red pouch under their neck to attract the ladies while giving a deep, low-pitched booming call.
This first afternoon of scouting and birding at San Gerardo was none other than fantastic. We logged 73 species in the late afternoon including Red-headed Barbet, Gray-throated Leaftosser, at least 7 Three-wattled Bellbirds, Azure-hooded Jay, White-throated Spadebill, Orange-bellied Trogon, Bay-headed Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Highland Tinamou and Chiriqui Quail-Dove heard only (eBird list).
We hit our pillows early that night for the much anticipated search for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. With just a cup of tea and a couple of bars, we hit the trail at 4:30 am to be sure to be in the lekking area at sunrise. Unfortunately a light drizzle had already begun and it soon turned to a light rain. We arrived just in time for first light and our first birds seen were a pair of Black-headed Antthrushes walking in the trail that we got nice looks at with the spotlight. We continued to walk slowly around the loop trail, enjoying the dawn chorus and listening intently for the deep low-pitched call of the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, but heard none. Our hopes of seeing the Umbrellabird stared shrinking as the rain started coming down harder, making it nearly impossible to hear anything in the forest, and the morning was progressing. We continued to slowly make circuits of the loop trail, hoping the rain would stop, when suddenly we both heard a deep moan coming from the high canopy. We only heard the call once and could not locate the sound at all, but we continued to work the area over and over scanning the tree tops. Josh saw something large and dark fly from the tree tops – it could have been a Black Guan (common there), or it could have been a Black Vulture, but it also could have been the Umbrellabird. Furiously scanning the tree tops, we got wetter and wetter but didn’t turn up anything. We continued working the area and Josh again caught a tiny peripheral glimpse of something in the canopy but again we couldn’t find anything up there. More and more time passed and it was at this point absolutely pissing rain. We were debating throwing in the towel for the morning when Josh saw something move overhead and excitedly ran for a clear view. I was struggling to get a view of the canopy while Josh was bouncing over fallen trees and squirming through the underbrush uphill from me. Within 15 seconds he yells out excitedly “I got it”. I scurried as fast as I could to the spot and peered into the canopy above to see a very wet but nonetheless absolutely spectacular male Bare-necked Umbrellabird! I was speechless! Look at that thing and his hairdo! And that pouch under his neck with a dangle of worms, what?! We both stood there in awe, staring at this incredibly rare and incredibly cool bird, drenched to the bone at this point, but soaking up the view for a good minute before it flew. Wow! After the bird flew off, Josh turned to me and asked “Do you like Flock of Seagulls?” (Check out this image if you don’t remember The Wedding Singer). The rain continued to fall throughout the morning but we were so excited we couldn’t care less. We made it back to the station for a massive breakfast and by late morning caught a break in the rain and headed back out. We didn’t make it very far before it started sprinkling again but nonetheless we came across a great ant swarm with a very quiet and stealthy flock of birds attending that slowly revealed great bird after great bird. First up was a Zeledon’s Antbird (formerly Immaculate Antbird), followed shortly by Sooty-faced Finch, Bicolored Antbird, Black-headed Antthrush, Slaty Antwren, and Spotted Barbtail (complete eBird list here). Not bad considering the rain! I never thought ants would be so active during the rain, but I guess everyone needs to eat, and this rain didn’t seem to damper activity at all. Between the bouts of rain we also managed to get even better looks at several Three-wattled Bellbirds and one even posed for the camera. We both giggled as we watched them through back their heads open their mouths and … wait through the anticlimactic silence … then finally BONK!
The next morning we arose early again, this time with clear skies, so we headed out again hoping to get a recording and some photographs of the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. We followed the same strategy, but this time, with better weather, missed the Umbrellabird completely, not even hearing it once. Finding the Umbrellabird is challenging for sure, especially considering their rarity. A population estimate of Bare-necked Umbrella birds in Costa Rica (the stronghold of their population, there are certainly fewer in Panama) conducted in 2009 estimated that there are between 190 – 300 individuals. While more optimistic estimates are for 1000-2,500 individuals, they are almost certainly still declining. Either way, there are not very many of these awesome birds left and their future is very troubled. Deforestation is the primary threat and more forested corridors from the lowlands to the mid-elevations are needed to protect this unique species, though it takes perhaps 40-80 years for forest to mature enough for some primary forest birds to start using it again (birds that rely on large natural cavities in old growth trees, such as Macaws, require even older forest than that!) Although deforestation is the primary threat, hunting in the past may have also contributed to population reductions. The guard at San Gerardo grew up at the station when it was still a working ranch and, while he is now very conservation minded, told us stories of his youth in this amazing forest, shooting Hawk-eagles to protect the chickens and his father eating Bare-necked Umbrellabirds. Not happy thoughts but thankfully conservation education has advanced remarkably in Costa Rica. If only more countries could do the same! If you are looking for the Umbrellabird, San Gerardo is perhaps the best place, especially during March and April, though it is still hard and by no means guaranteed. Check out Pat O’Donnell’s website for more information on finding the Bare-necked Umbrellabird in Costa Rica.
While working the trails, failing to find the Umbrellabird, we did have the great luck to actually see two species of Quail-Doves quite well within an hour of each other. Quail-Doves are generally not terribly common and are almost never easy to see.
We had great looks at a perched and calling Chiriqui Quail-Dove at first light and then a bit later a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove was readily tracked down calling from an obvious perch as well! Both of the Quail-Doves were found singing from the trees and not from the ground where you would expect them… a good reminder to look up from time to time when searching for calling Quail-Doves. In the trees, we also came across a spectacular mixed-species flock. Birds flitted to and fro with a lot of energy in the dawn light, making it very hard to get on any one of the birds 40 meters up in the canopy. Mixed-species flocks are the most exciting part of tropical birding, as a number of species are typically only found in mixed-species flocks, but picking out individual birds, especially the smaller, quieter birds of the higher canopy, can be very challenging. Spangle-cheeked, Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Antvireo, Slaty Antwrens, Rufous Mourner, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Lesser Greenlets, Tropical Parulas, Golden-crowned Warblers, Purple-crowned Fairy, and undoubtedly much more bounced around above us (eBird list). In the madness, somehow we both ended up getting on the same bird only to have it flit out of our binoculars in a second. I thought the bird was a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, whereas Josh thought it was a Slaty-capped Flycatcher, but neither of us saw all of the bird. With the none-too-common Rufous-browed Tyrannulet on our mind, we searched and searched the flock again and managed to track it down, though, again, we only saw it briefly. Not the best looks but enough to know it was a Rufous-browed Tryannulet. Thankfully, a few days later we both had satisfying looks at a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, which further confirmed what we saw. Though we spent almost all of our time on the lower trail looking for the Umbrellabird, and had great luck with Purplish-backed and Chiriqui Quail-Doves, Black-headed Antthrush, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Zeledon’s Antbird and other cool birds, we missed some of the other amazing birds that are at San Gerardo by not birding the upper trails at dawn. Notably, these upper trails are perhaps the best place in Central America for Rufous-breasted Antthrush and are one of the best places in Central America for Ochre-breasted Antpitta, as well as being good for Highland Tinamou, and Chiriqui Quail-Dove.
San Gerardo is worth every second of the hike up and down to the field station, and is worth at least 2-3 days birding. The trail is very easy to follow and not super strenuous, but you should be in good health to make the trek. The only thing to note is that there has been recent work done on the road and there is now an unsigned fork that is not included in the directions you receive when you make your reservation. When you come to the first fork in the road, go left (downhill), where you later encounter a sign and the trail the leads to the research station.