My first impulse when I received word that I had won the Birder of the Year contest, sponsored by Bird Watcher’s Digest and Swarovski Optik, was to accept the new Swarovski EL 8×42 binocular and forego the trip to Costa Rica. I had never birded out of North America and I was scared to death! Had I listened to my impulse, I would have made the biggest mistake of my life! Words cannot express the overwhelming joy of this experience.
My husband Ted and I included our granddaughter Medora and son-in-law Brian on the trip. Our guides were Clay Taylor, the best digiscoper in the world, and Alex Villegas, the best bird guide in Costa Rica. They were Swarovski representatives and, boy, does Swarovski do it up first class. We also had a wonderful driver,Wilson, who got us to every stop unscathed. These guys made us feel at ease and taught us so much about birding. They were patient, and made sure we saw every bird they heard or saw, and I am sure they never missed a one. They made sure we had excellent scope views of each bird they spotted.
Birding with Alex and Clay was truly a unique experience. Medora and I both have limited eyesight, and this makes spotting a bird challenging. They made sure every one of us saw every bird! They carried scopes, and a view through a Swarovski scope is a remarkable experience, and a true delight. We ended up seeing 213 species of birds in eight days!
We arrived in Costa Rica on January 3, 2017, and reluctantly flew home on January 11. We stayed first in the Hotel Villa Lapas on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. We stopped at the Tarcoles River, where we saw crocodiles, and took a boat ride on the river and saw wonderful water birds such as the boat-billed heron.
What a bill it has! We spent a morning in Carara National Park. It had great trails and is a wonderful birding park. White-faced monkeys played in the trees. Medora’s favorite bird was a laughing falcon sitting up in a tree looking around for a snake for lunch. A totally awesome blue-crowned motmot was perched in a tree by the road, and scarlet macaws were breathtaking.
Villa Lapas has a sky bridge, which was a thrilling experience. We came face-to-face with a beautiful black-and-white owl while hiking up there through the treetops. Another favorite bird of mine was a white-whiskered puffbird. I cannot fail to mention the regal, long-tailed silky-flycatcher, the array of tanagers of all colors, and the neat slaty flowerpiercer. Brian’s favorite was the red-headed barbet. The iguanas were awesome, and Alex found a darling green frog with red eyes for Medora to admire.
At 5 a.m. we were up to watch fiery-billed aracaris come out of their roosting hole in the yard near our rooms. First out of the tree came the massive toucan bill, then the remainder of bird shot out, followed by two others. What a thrill! We night birded and found a darling common pauraque. We heard an owl calling, and it turned out to be a pair of spectacled owls that mated before our eyes! I asked if I had just seen what I thought I saw, and Clay replied, “’Tis the season!” Bird shows do not get any better than that!
Our next destination was the Savegre Mountain Lodge at San Gerardo de Dota. It was in the highlands, at 7,200 feet. On the way, we stopped at a spot more than 10,000 feet in elevation. The goal there was to see volcano junco and timberline wren. We saw both!’
We descended from 10,000 feet curving down, down, down, to get to Savegre. This place made us flatlanders huff and puff. But it was sure worth the drive. The grounds were beautiful and full of birds.
The trails were rugged and exciting at Savegre. Medora and I even swung on a vine to get down one steep bank! To hear the thrilling call of the ruddy-capped nightingale-thrush in the stillness of the woods was beyond words. The finale was up around the corner, where we hoped to see resplendent quetzal. We watched it fly into a tree and display! Talk about a dazzling sight to take your breath away—that was it!
Finally, Alex and Clay took us to Rancho Naturalista, where we had chosen to extend our stay. We had to part from them here and I felt emotional. They are simply the best there is, and we hated leaving our friends.
Rancho Naturalista near Turrialba is on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It is a beautiful place where we might have seen the Turrialba Volcano smoking had the clouds lifted. They did not—after all this is the cloud forest. The birds are all around, whether you are on the porch by the many hummingbird feeders or downstairs on the patio where there are feeders filled with bananas and rice. Hiking is also exciting—a jaguar had been reported nearby. We were told not to go out at night for that reason. Of course, we wished to see it! One of my favorite birds was the Montezuma oropendola that would flip upside down on a limb to show off to the girls. Down one trail was a waterfall, where, we were told, we might be lucky to see the tiny snowcap hummingbird bathe in the pool. It showed up right away and dipped into the water time after time! A white-tipped sickle-bill hummingbird joined it! The owners at Rancho Naturalista were delightful hosts. We hiked with a guide there and got to see the awesome sunbittern and a beautiful rufous motmot.
Wilson, our driver, came to transport us to San Jose at 10 a.m. on the 10th. Our last stop was the beautiful Hotel Bougainvillea in San Jose. It sits in the midst of 10 acres of tropical gardens where you will find botanical wonders galore along with fascinating birds. Noisy parrots flew over our heads and landed close enough we could watch them eat the fruit on the tree. We saw a white-eared ground-sparrow there, also.
Sadly, it was time to leave this beautiful country. We had heard stories of poisonous snakes and frogs, bad roads, stifling heat, and other such discouraging tales. In fact, we found the people of Costa Rica to be sweet and friendly; we had no encounters with poisonous critters; the roads were excellent; and the food was out of this world. The weather was fantastic, and every place we stayed was elegant. We fell in love with Costa Rica and we plan to return to this paradise of birds.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Bird Watcher’s Digest and Swarovski Optik, for your generosity. I love my top-of-the-line binoculars, and I have a million amazing memories from this trip. A deep heartfelt thanks to Alex and Clay from all of us for showing us such great birds and such a great time. Ted and I, and Medora and Brian thank you all so very much for our Trip of a Lifetime!
Here’s the essay Karen submitted to win her the Birder of the Year 2016 title:
High on Curlews
Our dream had always been to go birding in Alaska. We live in central Illinois, 3,341 miles from the Alaska border. Ted and I finally made the decision to drive there in 2010 to take our Birding Trip of a Lifetime. While winter raged in full force, we started planning. I spent hours in cyberspace and sent for tons of reading material, and we studied bird guides and bird sounds endlessly. We decided take our two grandchildren along: Anthony, 8, and Medora, 6. They were already pretty sharp birders. When the first day of spring rolled around, we had our reservations secured to spend two months birding in Alaska.
On May 29, we headed north, birding and sightseeing all the way. Once in Alaska, we explored back roads, took boat trips to rookeries and glaciers, and hiked in the tundra. On the summer solstice, we took a ferry to spend eight days on Kodiak Island. We drove the Dempster Highway north to the Arctic Ocean. Our most exciting experience was flying beside Denali’s peak on our way to Nome, where we spent a glorious week. It was hard to decide upon our most extraordinary birding experience of the trip, but we all agree that the most awesome moment was birding on Coffee Dome in Nome.
On the morning of June 12, our goal was to hike up Coffee Dome to the world-famous bristle-thighed curlew nesting site. These rare birds make a nonstop flight of 4,000 to 6,000 miles from their winter territory on islands in the South Pacific to nest on the most remote hilltops of Alaska’s tundra. The global population of these birds is estimated to be only 7,000.
Nothing can prepare you for the climb up to Coffee Dome. It is like hiking on bowling balls, and when your foot slips off a rock, you sink to your knees in spongy tundra. The effort took all of my stamina, and I was ready to turn back. Medora took my hand in hers and coaxed me on, promising that she would save me. Who could turn back with encouragement and faith like that? As we neared the top, a bristle-thighed curlew’s call pierced the silence. We all froze, our hearts pounding with excitement. No words can describe our thrill at that moment. We saw three curlews!
We noted the distinctive pale, buffy rump and tail, obvious only in flight. Its long, decurved bill is awesome. Its call is like a human attention whistle. In the silence of that clear morning, it sure got our attention, and it is a sound we will never forget.
Medora has very limited eyesight, and I prayed that she could see at least one of the birds. I handed her my Swarovski binoculars, and her face glowed as she looked up and smiled. I asked her what she saw, and she put her hand up to her nose and made a decurved beak motion with her finger.
The Alaska trip was magical from start to finish. We ended it with a trip list of 224 bird species, including 53 lifers. Our most memorable bird was the bristle-thighed curlew, seen through our granddaughter’s eyes.
About the Author
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