La Gamba, Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas, Rincon de la Osa, and Los Cusingos
14 – 16 June 2014
The Osa Peninsula and the nearby Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas are one of the great birding destinations of Costa Rica. While lacking the huge suite of Caribbean slope specialties, there are some very range restricted endemics here, the best lowland forest in all of Costa Rica, and a large number of birds that are otherwise only found in Panamá and further south.
We spent a couple nights camping at the Tropenstation ($15/person/night, a little high for camping, but the only option near La Gamba that we found). From here we birded the road that joins La Gamba to Golfito by way of Piedras Blancas National Park, as well as birding the surrounding fields a bit for a couple of specialties. Our first day out on the La Gamba – Golfito road was quite birdy. We arrived midafternoon and despite the heat stopped a couple of times for activity. Just driving slowly we heard Ant-Tanager chatter and hopped out of the truck, soon getting great looks at the very range restricted Costa Rica endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. As the afternoon progressed activity picked up and we spent a good hour or more with a huge mixed flock in which we found a couple of really good species – Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Red-rumped Woodpecker (much easier in the Darien of Panamá, this is not a common bird in Costa Rica at all!), and Spot-crowned Euphonia. We were on the prowl for the very range restricted and near Costa Rican endemic White-crested Coquette. We didn’t find this species our first day but we did turn up a lot of hummingbirds including Charming Hummingbird, another species with a very small range which is actually quite common along this road. Coming out of the forest into the agricultural lands surrounding La Gamba, we glanced a curious looking small bird in a little twiggy tree beside the road and stopped. Soon we had eye level views of a pair of Slate-colored Seedeaters! This is something of a nomadic, quite uncommon bird, that usually turns up in or around bamboo in wetland areas and river edges through the Neotropics. In the La Gamba area, however, it has turned into a rice specialist and it is easily found throughout the area. We saw it on numerous occasions without trying too hard, one rice field that was close to harvest held at least 40! Birding a bit more in the forest as dark approached yielded one more good bird we were looking for, another very range restricted species, the Golden-naped Woodpecker.
The following day we birded the road again as we were still looking for White-crested Coquette. We put a lot of attention into flowering trees, particularly Inga trees, which seem to attract Coquettes, and after about four hours patiently staking out and scanning Inga trees we finally turned up a female-plumage White-crested Coquette. As a side note, I don’t know if it’s just luck or if there is more to it but we managed to see at least 4 Black-crested Coquettes from Mexico to Costa Rica, but all were females or juvenile males. The White-crested Coquette we saw was female plumaged. However, we have seen three Rufous-crested Coquettes (between a prior trip to Panamá and our current trip, but that will be written up in a later post), and all of them have been adult males. Just something we find odd!
Back to the La Gamba – Golfito road, we did find a few other nice birds to add to our list from the previous day, including Streak-chested Antpitta, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Yellow Tyrannulet, White-vented Euphonia, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, White-throated Crake, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Bronzy Hermit, White-necked Puffbird, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Wren, Long-billed Starthroat, Laughing Falcon, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, and another couple regional specialties – Fiery-billed Aracari and Costa Rican Swift. The birding along this road really is fantastic!
On our way back to the Tropenstation, we stopped for an interesting looking bird on a roadside wire and sure enough it was a Rusty-margined Flycatcher, a recent colonist from Panamá that is fairly well established around La Gamba.
That evening we went out spotlighting and owling, driving slowly on the main road from Troppenstation out to the highway.
We turned up a couple of very cool frogs, a couple of Common Potoos, and after about an hour or so, a Striped Owl, perched contentedly on the roadside wires, oblivious to us and all the locals bicycling and walking past.This is a great area to look for this species, we heard another later on our drive back to the Tropenstation as well.
With the La Gamba area specialties all taken care of, it was on to the perhaps-not-really-famous-but-well-known-to-Costa-Rican-birders, Rincon bridge to look for Cotingas. In addition to the regional specialties mentioned above, the Osa is home to two very range restricted Cotingas, the Turquoise Cotinga and the Yellow-billed Cotinga. We got up very early to make the fairly long drive from the Troppenstation to the Rincon bridge and arrived around 6:30AM. We stopped a few hundred meters shy of the bridge at a spot where there is a decent vista over the mangroves. Kathi beat me out of the truck and before I could even pick up my binoculars she calls out “I have a Cotinga!” Sure enough, a beautiful male Yellow-billed Cotinga was perfectly teed up atop a mangrove snag in the morning light. Good way to start – 30 seconds into the day, 1 for 2 on Cotingas!
What followed was two days of birding the Rincon bridge and the surrounding mangroves, as well as in towards Drake’s Bay a good ways and back towards the highway, scanning hillsides, looking for fruiting trees, and generally cooking ourselves in the sun. We managed to see about a dozen Yellow-billed Cotingas in the process but completely struck out on Turquoise. Phooey. We did see scads of gorgeous Scarlet Macaws flying over, a nicely perched Crane Hawk, more Costa Rican Swifts, Fiery-billed Aracaris and a Gray-lined Hawk (distinctly less common in southern Costa Rica and Panamá than Gray Hawk is in Mexico and northern Central America). Side note: if you are looking for a place to stay near the Rincon Bridge check out Camping and Cabins Chontal (8.70268 -83.48691). There is a nice place to camp with covered cooking areas, clean bathrooms for $5 per person. They also rent out cabins although I’m not sure how much they charge but I don’t imagine it would be too expensive.
We were hot and tired and I needed to make a trip back home briefly, so we retreated to San Jose to rest up and to get me to the airport and to think over how much energy we wanted to put into looking for the Turquoise Cotinga, and where to go about it. I had a very quick (2.5 day) trip to Colorado, just long enough for my tropic-humidity accustomed lips and cuticles to crack and chap severely. In the middle of the trip I got invited to a bird count in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I even got a couple lifers – White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch!A bit of a departure from Cotingas!
Upon my return to Costa Rica, we headed to Los Cusingos, the former home of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch and nowadays a private reserve and a bit of a museum. Turquoise Cotinga is seen here regularly, so we staked out the garden area and watched… and watched… and watched… and watched. It is very birdy and is a nice spot to bird, but it’s not exciting forest birding, it’s kind of just watching a garden and the tree tops of the forest edge around it. So we watched some more… we didn’t find any Cotingas, nor much of note other than some mystery Cyseloides type swifts that were seen briefly. Spot-fronted is possible in the area but Chestnut-collared is more likely, certainly. We were debating what to do when the very kind staff at Cusingos suggested that we just camp in the parking lot so we could get an earlier start the following day (they do not open until 7) and take another whack at it. We took them up on their offer, cooked a nice dinner in a torrential downpour and conked out, setting the alarm very early so we could be out birding at first light. Staying in the reserve paid off and around 6:40 the next morning we saw well if unfortunately very briefly a male Turquoise Cotinga fly into the canopy of a tree on the forest edge. We only got about a 10 second look at it before it continued on its way but we were elated to have seen it. Essentially the last bird we had been looking for in Costa Rica, we packed up, hit the road, and despite a bit more hassle than usual at the border, were in Panamá by late afternoon and excited, after nearly three months in Costa Rica, to be moving south again!
Just for a brief recap of Costa Rica, here are some stats as I like making lists and looking at this kind of stuff!
A bit less than three months in Costa Rica
90 eBird checklists
595 species logged
235 species new for our trip
Our favorite species from Costa Rica (no particular order):
Great Green Macaw
And the ones that got away:
Highland Tinamou (heard only)
Gray-headed Piprites (heard only, despite a month or more looking)
Olive-backed Quail-Dove (never even heard, despite a month or more looking)
There is some amazing birding to be had in Costa Rica and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We would like to thank Pat O’Donnell and Jim Zook for giving us so much great information and making our stay in Costa Rica so enjoyable!