By Clay Taylor
When the folks at Bird Watcher’s Digest collaborated with Swarovski Optik to supply the top prize for their 2014 Birder of the Year contest, picking the prize-winner’s birding trip was a no-brainer: Costa Rica! Winner Lyn Stallings and husband John Rumm of Cody, Wyoming, were thrilled to be taking their first birding excursion into the tropics.
It took a little while to get everybody’s schedules to align, so a mid-July date was set for the trip. Now, most people travel to Costa Rica in the winter months, usually because they want to escape the snow and ice of North America, but also because the November to April time frame is the Costa Rican dry season. Well, “dry” is always relative while in the tropics, but suffice to say that their dry season usually features only intermittent showers, while the wet season can be very wet. Okay—we were planning on going down there in the wet season. Bring your ponchos, Lyn and John! It’s a good thing that Swarovski Optik binoculars and spotting scopes are waterproof.
Alex Villegas and I met Lyn and John at 6 a.m. at their hotel in San Jose and headed southeast, hoping to get through the capital city before the traffic built up. Our plan worked, as we soon passed through Cartago and headed up the hills onto the Cerro del Muerte Road (the Pan-American Highway). What could have been a beautiful view of the Irazu Volcano quickly became gray—we drove up into the clouds and rain. Ugh. A quick side-trip up the road to the communications towers at over 10,000 feet elevation got us close looks at volcano juncos, but the wind and mist were enough to keep us from exiting the car. The juncos were happily feeding alongside the road while we happily viewed from the warm, dry vehicle.
Then it was back a few kilometers, and a left turn onto the road to San Gerardo de Dota, and the Savegre Mountain Lodge. Amazingly, as we descended down the Pacific side of the mountains, the clouds parted, and the sun came out! A flock of 13 band-tailed pigeons feeding in the middle of the road was fun, and scattered black-billed nightingale thrushes and dusky robins gave Lyn things at which to point her new Swarovski Optik 8×42 SLC binocular.
We arrived at Savegre, and Lyn’s face lit up when she saw all the flowers, sunshine, and hummingbirds that greeted her. The nearby tray feeder had flame-colored tanagers and yellow-thighed finches visiting it, and overhead were flocks of sulphur-winged parakeets and blue-and-white swallows. You’re not in Wyoming anymore!
The next two days were more of the same—resplendent quetzals, collared redstarts, silver-throated tanagers, and more hummingbirds. My favorite was a little volcano hummingbird that frequented the flowers right in front of our cabins—it posed nicely for my digiscoping setup.
It was with great reluctance that we left Savegre to head back over the hills to a Caribbean-side birding destination—the Rancho Naturalista near Turrialba. Amazingly, we hit only a little rain as we exited the mountains at Cartago, and the sun had reappeared by the time we reached the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles in Cartago. After a quick photo stop, it was a windy drive through sugar cane and coffee plantations, arriving at Rancho Naturalista just in time for lunch. Lunch on the patio featured a lot of distractions at the feeders—Montezuma oropendula, white-necked jacobin, and green-breasted mango were just a few of the new birds.
The shift to the Caribbean side of the country brought all new species, and at times, keeping up with the list was dizzying. Lyn and John also were discovering that birding in the tropics requires a new set of birding skills—using your eyes to spot birds deep in the foliage, your ears to get an idea of what they might be, and then the patience to wait until they show themselves. That is where Alex’s years as a top nature guide in Costa Rica came in handy—he was able to spot and identify species and then help everybody else get good looks.
The extensive Porterweed gardens and multiple feeders at Rancho Naturalista are magnets for hummingbirds, including the Tiny Trio: green thorntail, black-crested coquette, and the snowcap. Up on the trails, more hummers came in to feed, and the highlight of the day occurs as the daylight is waning and the hummers come in to “splash bathe” in a tiny brook. Amazingly, we still had very nice weather, although a passing shower hit while we were having lunch.
All too soon, the trip was over, and it was time to head back to San Jose. When we last saw Lyn and John, they had big smiles on their faces, a longer life list, and lots of images to sort through.
Clay Taylor is the Naturalist Market Manager at Swarovski Optik North America. He makes his home in Corpus Christi, Texas.
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