4 – 6 May 2014
Our not so well planned tour of Costa Rica brought us back to the northern border of Costa Rica near Nicaragua, to the lowland rainforests around Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. Laguna del Lagarto Lodge protects 1250 acres of rainforest that are at the fringes of forest fingers that back up against the Rio San Juan (the border with Nicaragua). Across the river is the massive Indio Maiz Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest remaining lowland rainforests in Central America. Here the opportunities for good birds are endless and we were hoping to get lucky with some of the rarer lowland rainforest specialties such as Great Green Macaw, Snowy Cotinga, Tawny-faced Quail, and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.
We arrived in the late afternoon, in a sweltering heat, and stopped at the first little lagoon about a km short of the lodge. First bird spotted – none other than a Green-and Rufous Kingfisher! Not a very easy bird, certainly the least common Kingfisher in Central America. Hearing a distinct little ticking, very insect like, we recognized it as the song of the smallest passerine in the world, the Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant.
This little guy comes in at just under 3 inches (2.7 inches) and is smaller than some hummingbirds. It also tends to be a canopy species. Talk about tiny and hard to see as he flits around in a blur high in the canopy. Luck was with us, though, as this little guy was in some scrubby trees on the edge of the forest and only about 10 m up, giving us great views. We ended up seeing several Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants along the road to the lodge and we even had some later that were calling at eye level.
We made arrangements with the super friendly and welcoming staff at Laguana del Lagarto Lodge to use the trails starting at sunrise. We were psyched to get access to trails at such an early hour since quite often reserves do not open early and we have not had many opportunities to be on the trail at dawn prowling for Quail-doves. We spent two mornings birding the trails at the lodge and had great birds both days although the birding was very slow at times and things heated up quickly, getting warm by 8am and simply hot by 9-9:30am. The forest here is drier than normal as it’s been a very dry year in the area. Perhaps this contributed to the forest being dead quiet for long stretches and at times we walked for 100s of meters without encountering a single bird. But when we did come across mixed-species flocks the birding was good (eBird list Day 1, Day 2). The flocks were led by Tawny-crested Tanagers with Checker-throated Antwren, White-flanked Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo sometimes in tow. In between the flocks we encountered a family of three Ocellated Antbirds that we were able to watch interacting for a good 15 minutes, as well as Spotted Antbirds, Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, and Black-striped Woodcreepers. Chestnut-backed Antbirds serenaded us all morning, begging us to “Come here, come right here” (The Chestnut-backed Antbird is one of our favorite calls, listen to its song on Macaulay Library). While hiking along the Toucan trail in a swampy bit of forest Josh heard a Uniform Crake and miraculously the Uniform Crake proceeded to walk right across the trail in front of us.
Uniform Crakes are not very common and never very easy to see so we were pretty psyched. We never heard nor saw a Quail-Dove or a Tawny-faced Quail, which is not super surprising since the Olive-backed Quail-Dove does not call very frequently and the Tawny-faced Quail is rarely reported in Costa Rica (or anywhere really). We also managed to miss the Great-Green Macaw! We heard Macaws when we were hiking in the forest but could never get clear views of the sky and when we were in the open areas around the lodge we only saw Scarlet Macaws. Great-Green Macaws are definitely around the area and in the end we got a glimpse of what had to be a Great-Green Macaw but I only saw a small fraction of the bird as it flew out of view. In addition to the great birding along the trails, the gardens around the lodge offer up some great birding.
The other star attraction at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge is the Agami Heron that frequents the lagoons near the lodge. We have been looking for this heron for a while now so we were eager to check out the lagoon to see if we could find this elusive and striking bird. We jumped in a canoe in the late afternoon and paddled ever so slowly into the hidden back reaches the lagoon, scanning the entire way. Deeper into the lagoon we spotted a heron. At first I thought it was a Little Blue Heron but then quickly realized that, no, this was the Agami Heron. The field guide to the Birds of Costa Rica illustrates the Agami Heron as having a very green sheen to its plumage, but in reality the plumage is much more grayish-blue. Agami Herons are simply put one of the most elegant and beautiful herons out there. Floating silently in our canoe we were able to watch this amazing guy for at least a half an hour as he stealthily hunted fish along the edge of the lagoon.
At the lodge we also had the best looks possible at a female Great Curassow. She came right up to me and nearly jumped into the truck. Apparently she showed up at the lodge a week prior and has been progressively getting bolder. The Curassow and I enjoyed a few moments talking to each other as I admired her ever so closely, what a beauty! She even followed us down to the dock when we went looking for the Agami Heron. I actually thought she was going to jump into the canoe with us. It is not every day that you have a Great Curassow at your feet. Who knows if she was someone’s pet nearby or if she merely is curious and looking for a handout. She looked well fed and healthy but was certainly plenty bold.
Outside of the lodge we also spent some time birding the marshy areas north of Boca Tapada along the main road looking for Crakes and the Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. Adolfo, the lodge manager, had mentioned a good spot to check for the Seed-Finch and sure enough, we pulled over to the shoulder and hadn’t even turned the truck off before Josh says “Hey look a black bird with a bubble-gum pink bill just popped up.” There is a fenced archway with a dilapidated sign about a reforestation project, on the east side of the road, a few km past Boca Tapada on the way north, where you can be sure to find the bubble-gum billed Nicaraguan Seed-Finch.
The bill on that thing is out of control, it looks like it was chewing gum and popped a bubble and covered its entire face. Despite the roadside location we even managed to get a few recordings of the songs and some really nice photos as at least 4 males flitted about perching within 4-5 meters at times. Further north along the road we also heard several Gray-throated Crakes, but seeing them was another story. We tried in vain standing along the dusty and sweltering road for at least a half an hour, peering endlessly into the grass to no avail. That one will remain on our heard only list and that is fine with me.
We also explored the road to Reserva San Juan (owned by the folks at Pedacito del Cielo) further up the road. The forest along the road looks great, although we only spent a few hours in the late afternoon birding the area. There is a trail network at Reserva San Juan that we did not investigate but it seems like a really worthwhile birding destination. Stop by Pedacito del Cielo to ask for permission to bird the trails, though it looks like the reserve is fairly open and public.
If you are up for the adventure and are looking for a place to camp in the area, we found a wonderful spot right along the river at Centro Turistico Cuyito (10.65726 -84.24809), about 4 km south of Boca Tapada. We had a private palapa with tables and a sink with good drinking water under beautiful trees, right on the river, with bathrooms and cold water showers close by (which feels incredible after a long day of birding in the tropical heat). The owner is incredibly friendly and charges a meager 1,000 colones ($2 dollars) per person to camp. The restaurant there didn’t look half bad and the cold beers are cheap too!