The First Trip to the Costa Rican Bird Route

By Holly Robertson

The first official tour of the Costa Rican Bird Route was run from February 17th to the 21st of 2008. The tour was a familiarization tour (or FAM tour) designed specifically for professionals from bird conservation and eco-tourism organizations. The primary objectives of the trip was to improve  the Bird Route  project design by identifying existing holes in the project; and determining what further steps need to be taken to ensure success of the Route. Our secondary objective was to obtain support for the Costa Rican Bird Route. 

There were a total of 14 participants on the trip. This included the trip’s bird guide, Pablo Elizondo of the Costa Rican Ornithological Association and Partners in Flight Costa Rica.

Over a span of four days, five of the Costa Rican Bird Route sites were visited. A one day optional extension trip was offered that included Carara National Park in the morning and a mangrove swamp birding tour in the afternoon on the Tarcoles River delta.

Trip participants gathered on the night of Feb. 17th at the Hotel Vesuvio in the capital city of San Jose. Here participants mingled, told birding stories, and got to know each other as the excitement for the trip began to build.  A round-table discussion was held to make introductions and outline the objectives of the trip.

On the morning of the 18th the group arose to a beautiful day and headed to the trip’s first destination, Albergue El Socorro near Colonia la Virgen el Socorro, located on the Caribbean slope of the Central Volcanic mountain range. On the way to Albergue, the group took advantage of the unique birding opportunities, stopping near the Peace Waterfalls where we had a great view of a Barred Hawk, and picked up a Torrent Tyranulet below the falls. We continued on our way and made a coffee stop at El Cinchona to enjoy the panoramic view of the mountainside and visit the feeders of the restaurant.  The fruit and hummingbird feeders attracted Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Common-Bush Tanager, Green Thorntail and Silver Throated Tanager among others.

Jose Miranda, owner of Albergue El Socorro, and his wife (Photo by H. Robertson)

As we approached Albergue El Socorro we got our first of many sightings of the White Hawk, one of this site’s emblematic bird species. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Jose Miranda, the property owner and were given a tour of the property.  We observed Montezuma Oropendolas building nests and displaying; as well as Golden-hooded Tanagers, Crimson-collared Tanagers, Crested Guans and a pair of Slaty Spinetails right around the site’s cabins. After a magnificent home-cooked lunch of beans, rice, fresh tilapia and homemade cheese and tortillas we were off to our next destination, Tirimbina Rainforest Center.

Upon arriving at Tirimbina one immediately had the sense of being in the rainforest and good birding opportunities presented themselves right away. Mealy Parrots and Red-lored Parrots were right on the path near the entrance. That afternoon we birded from the suspension bridge, which offers a unique perspective of the canopy as well as the Sarapiquí River below. That night the U.S. Director of the Costa Rican Bird Route, and RBG Founder Andrew Rothman, gave a presentation on the development of the Costa Rican Bird Route.

The group spent the next morning, the 19th, exploring the rainforests of Tirimbina and the Sarapiquí River edge. After a refreshing morning rain shower, the birds re-emerged and we were able to pick up a number of fantastic species: Chestnut backed Antbird, Red-throated Ant Tanager, Western Slaty Antshrike, Anhinga, Black-faced Saltator, White-necked Jacobin, Fasciated Tiger Heron, Rufous Motmot, Slaty-tailed Trogon among others. We returned to the site’s restaurant and enjoyed a big breakfast and the chance to compare bird sightings. The group was boisterous and excited for the rest of the trip after good morning birding.

View of the Sarapiquí River from the suspension bridge at Tirimbina Rainforest Center (Photo by A. Rothman)

From Tirimbina we made our way to Mi Pedacito de Cielo. Arriving at this lodge situated above the San Carlos River the group was pleasantly surprised by the charming ambiance, private views of the river, and the unique craftsmanship of the lodging. After a delicious dinner cooked by the owner Marco Tulio and his assistant, the group had a chance to talk with him to discuss his property and his plans for conservation. Afterward we had a productive discussion on effective ways to promote the Bird Route, both locally and internationally.

On the morning of the 20th we were pleased to find yet another perfect day with the sun shining and the temperature staying steady around 80 degrees F. We set out early to explore the variety of birding opportunities that Mi Pedacito de Cielo has to offer.  Their reserve is about 2km from the lodge and the birding on the road to the reserve was quite good and we spotted a variety of species. It was along this road that we had our first view of the Great Green Macaw. This was the first time the majority of participants laid eyes on this majestic endangered species.

The reserve itself was lush and the hike through the reserve provided the opportunity to learn about some of the vegetation. Hugo, our local guide, demonstrated the use of one tree commonly called “leche de la vaca” tree, or cow’s milk tree. When a cut is made in the tree, it oozes a milky substance that alleviates gastrointestinal distress. However, former WI- DNR warden John Christian thought it made a good face paint as well. This natural remedy tasted a lot like Milk of Magnesia! Hugo explained that the locals feel it is okay to make these cuts in the tree because God provided this tree for medicinal purposes.  On the way back to the lodge we came upon an antswarm that was being followed by White-whiskered Puffbirds, White-fronted Nunbirds, Barred Antshrike, and other antbirds which created a lot of excitement among the participants.  Back at the restaurant, we enjoyed another great home made meal while keeping an eye on the fruit feeders that drew in species like: Palm Tanager, Collared Aracari, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Orange Chinned Parakeet, Passerin’s Tanager and more. It wasn’t just all birds though; several Iguanas were also spotted lazily hanging out in nearby branches.

A Red-legged Honeycreeper eating at the fruit feeders at Mi Pedacito de Cielo  (Photo by W. Volkert)

From Mi Pedacito de Cielo we headed to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge located just 2 kms away. At Laguna del Lagarto we wasted no time and jumped in the lodge’s canoes and headed out on the lagoons to get close looks at the reclusive Agami Heron and American Pygmy Kingfisher, both of which we got!

Laguna del Lagarto Lodge (Photo by H. Robertson)

The forest at Laguna del Lagarto is old growth primary rainforest and during a walk through the forest we came upon another antswarm and a nice flock of antbirds including Streak Crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren as well as a pair of Black-throated Trogons! We returned to the lodge for a buffet style meal and to go over our lists for the day. After the meal we met Kurt Schmack, the owner of the lodge and Olivier Chassot of the Tropical Science Center.  The two discussed the history of Great Green Macaw research and the lodge’s involvement with the conservation of this species.  

The next morning, some of the participants arose early in search of the Great Green Macaws and were lucky enough to find and observe a pair for nearly 45 minutes. Others relaxed near the feeders where the tropical birds were abundant. There were amazing looks at the Keel-billed Toucans, Brown-hooded Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets.

The Costa Rican Bird Route sign hanging at the entrance to the Quebrada Grande Reserve entrance (Photo by A. Rothman)

After breakfast we needed to be on our way to the final site of our tour, Quebrada Grande.  Quebrada Grande is a unique reserve as it is owned by the community of Quebrada Grande and overseen by the local Women’s Association. We had the opportunity to meet some of the women from the association and hear about their efforts in developing economic opportunities for women in the community. After our introduction we had a brief exploration of the reserve, a 119 hectare piece of land that protects both primary and secondary rainforest. As we stopped near a waterfall on the hike, we had a great look at a large Morpho butterfly as it flitted through the sunshine filtering through the canopy. After our hike, we were served a lunch of fresh tilapia, right from the tilapia tanks that the women operate. The fish was served along with a side of Costa Rican cabbage salad and yucca, a starchy tuberous root similar to potato that is popular in the tropics.

As we got ready to leave this site, two Great Green Macaws flew into a nearby tree. The women of Quebrada Grande said this was the closest they had ever seen the macaws. Everyone was extremely excited and we all took this to be a very good sign for the future, and it made the perfect ending to our tour.

Our last supper together back at the hotel in San Jose was a great ending to the week. The participants surprised the trip leaders with a bottle of “Bird Route” champagne, with its own Bird Route label affixed.  It was very special to hear the accolades and positive comments made by this great group of ornithological and tourism professionals. Most importantly, this group gave RBG the assurance that we were in fact on the right path with this project, and that they were in full support of our efforts.

The Optional One-Day Extension Trip:

On the morning of the 22nd, while some of our participants made their way to the airport, others boarded another bus for the optional extension trip to Carara National Park on the Central Pacific coast. On the way to Carara National Park the group hit a few stops and were able to add Black and White Owl, Crested Caracara, Amazon Kingfisher, and Little Blue Heron to our ever-expanding list of trip birds. Carara National Park is a unique ecosystem as it is where the northern dry forest meets the wet southern forests for a mixed habitat that cannot be found anywhere else in Central America. The birding was incredible and we observed Baird’s Trogon, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Purple crowned Fairy, and Royal Flycatcher! Our daily list was over 100 species.

We ended our day with a Mangrove Swamp Bird Tour on the Rio Tarcoles. We cruised the river into the twilight hour, and the birding was non-stop and spectacular. Among others we saw Wood Stork, White Ibis, Scarlet Macaw, Mangrove Swallow, Mangrove Warbler, Yellow-crowned night-heron, Prothonotary Warbler, Roseate Spoonbill, Whimbrel, Bare-throated tiger heron, Double-striped thick knee, Boat-billed Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Black-crowned Night and Yellow-naped Parrot. After getting back, we loaded up the bus one last time, and headed back to San Jose.

Birding on the Mangrove Swamp Birding Tour (Photo by H. Robertson)

The first ever trip to the Costa Rican Bird Route was a great success. The birding on the trip was excellent and an initial count of 224 species of birds was recorded for the trip. In addition, the trip met the goals established by RBG. The participants provided ample feedback to guide the further development of the project; helped identify holes in the project; and validated the design of our project which could be used as a model for other countries.

All of the participants had an amazing experience and walked away with a renewed energy for conservation.

The face-painting John Christian of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had this to say: “This was likely one of the top five life experiences for me so far – totally worth it for me, based on the entire experience, birding being only one aspect; the cultural, academic; geographic and environmental experience was unique.”

Susan Hannon of the University of Alberta said “I felt very engaged with the project, conservation in action!”

The next step for Rainforest Biodiversity Group is to secure a Bird Route Coordinator to ensure the success of the project in the first year of operation. RBG is also in the process of planning more trips to the Bird Route, and is continuing to develop different Bird Route products and tours. Look for further updates on these developments on the Costa Rican Bird Route website

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