Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Costa Rica Trip Report


In 2013 my dad agreed to fly out to Portland to take care of our 2 year old Charlie. My wife Tui and I took the opportunity to visit Costa Rica. I tried my best to squeeze in as much owling with out pissing off my wife. Here's what happened......

2/6 Dad and Charlie dropped us off at PDX at 6am. We caught the American flight to DFW and then on to San Jose. We took a van out to Thrifty, where we had to wait an age while dissatisfied customers argued and cursed at the feckless agents. Fortunately we were upgraded to a Diahatsu 4x4. Although Tui had mapped to route to our B and B; Vida Tropical, in Alajuela, we got turned around. Once I started asking around it quickly became apparent that Ticos don't really use street names. A nice guy called the B and B and drove us there. Vida Tropical was informal and friendly.

2/7 We awoke early from the street noise and bright sun. We had our first of many Gallo Pintos for breakfast, then set off on foot to explore Alajuela. The weather was cool, but the sun was brilliant. Soon we hit the road and made our way over the ridge above town, and then down the long descent to the Caribbean lowlands. Past Pital the road became rocky, and the Diahatsu's harsh ride made the rest of the drive tedious. The lodge-Laguna de Largato was recommended by the guide we would later use: Leo (, as a site for Central American Pygmy Owl.

The lodges resident guide, Zac cheerfully let me know that he had never seen the pygmy owl. A bit disheartened, we decided to while away the heat of the day on a nature walk with Zak. He pointed out lots of plants and a couple of strawberry poison arrow frogs. Eventually as the sun's heat waned, we broke away from the group and started owling. Tui eventually retired, but I continued. About ten minutes before it got dark, I got a response. (I was on the trail that bisected the main road 1km North of the lodge and about 75 m east of the main road). Soon an angry Central American Pygmy owl was criss-crossing in front of me in some dense second growth. I only saw the bird in flight, but was able to ID it by call. What a great start.

When I got back to the lodge, I told Zak-he was eager to go out an look for it tomorrow. He agreed to take us out to look for some resident black and white owls after diner. We soon got a response along the main trail, just 50m from the lodge. Much to my surprise a beautiful Mexican Mottled owl was the respondent. We enjoyed great views of a bird perched low above the trail. It was a mid sized owl, about 30cm long, with dark eyes, without ear tufts, with very dark upper parts and a streaked breast. It's call was a single note-a questioning, almost two part hoot, repeated at intervals.

Later that night I heard the resident black and white owls calling. I tried taping them from our balcony, but they immediately fell silent.

2/8 I got up before dawn  and took Zak to the pygmy owl site. The bird responded, but was more wary, and we never got to see it. Still Zak was pleased to have heard it. While waiting for breakfast one of the guys found a big fer de lance by the trail, right where we had found the mottled owl last night! After breakfast Tui and I returned to the same area and saw both species of macaw. About 300m east of the site, Tui's whistles drew in a calling Pygmy Owl. We were unable to locate it, and it soon stopped calling.

It was a long bumpy ride back to Pital. From there we went to Albergue de Socorro which is on the north slope of the ridge that separates the central valley from the Northern lowlands. This turned out to be a great home stay. The food was great, and our host really kind and interesting. After lunch we were taken down to the river, where we saw tapir tracks and puma scat. After dinner we drove up the road and looked for bare-shanked screech owl, however it was windy, and we soon gave up.

2/9 I was awakened at 5am, by howler monkeys. After breakfast our host took us to see some amazing waterfalls. On route we found a small group of howlers sunning themselves on top of a large tree. These were Tui's first moneys.

We parted ways with our host and drove to Sarapiqui to visit a modest archaeological site and museum. We then hustled back over the mountain and met Leo at a MegaSuper near the airport.

Leo directed us across the dense traffic of San Jose and onto the interamerican which led us into the Cordillera de Tallamanca. The drive through the mountains felt very familiar, having hardly changed since I was here in 1999. We drove straight to a site in Savegre, which was supposed to have nesting Costa Rican Pygmy Owls. We waited for over an hour, as the light fell. Leo tooted constantly, but to no avail. As a compensation, the oak forest was absolutely beautiful, and was highlighted by wonderful late afternoon light. As dusk descended we drove to a secret, (ask Leo), site for Unspotted saw-whet owl. Having no luck there, we returned to Miriam's Comidas Tipicas for a great diner. We stayed in a cabin, just below Miriam's restaurant.

Later Leo and I explored trail 1, at Miriam's, and found a silent Bare-shanked screech owl, near the first stream (about 200m from the cabins). The bird came in to a tape. At first we thought it was a Mottled Owl, because it looked huge. It had no obvious ear tufts, but prominent pale eye-brows and a white line that encircled it's nape. It had yellow eyes, and a pale breast that had a darker area in the upper chest. Each breast feather had a dark center shaft, creating streaks, and a dark tip, giving an occilated appearance. The feet were yellowish and bare. It held it's wings open when perched, and the tail was fanned, enhancing it's large appearance. Great. What a fantastic owl! At one point, it clung from a vertical vine, perfectly doing what a cloud-forest inhabiting owl should do!

2/10 I awoke at 230am and brewed a potent cup of coffee. After a drink, I found Leo and we drove to the secret saw whet site. We spent the rest of the night trawling for the owl, but to no avail. Leo used a lot of tape, and lights, and we didn't really penetrate the habitat.

We returned to Miriam's at 6am. While parking the car, Leo heard a Costa Rica Pygmy-owl call. After a few minutes of taping, it flew into another tree. I got brief flying views. Not the best, but still a new owl! Having secured all the owls, but the saw whet, I decided to ask Leo to leave today, rather than tomorrow as we had originally planned. His owling style was quite frustrating to me. It was a bit awkward explaining this to Leo, but we paid him for two day's work, and drove him to a truck stop on the interamerican. Leo certainly wasn't thrilled about having to take a bus home!

Once we had dropped Leo off, we parked at the entrance to the new Los Quetzales national park, and hiked down the dirt road to La Providencia. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the sun was intense. At about 2km, where there is a strong right-hand bend, on a down hill section of the road we heard a Costa Rican pygmy-owl. The bird was high in a densely forested slope. I tried to get under the bird, by climbing the slope, and could twice deduce where it was from a cloud of mobbing humming birds that swarmed it perch. But no luck. Tui and I returned up the road a few hundred meters, and played the tape, It worked, the owl flew over the road. We got progressively better and better views of the bird as it eventually descended onto some small trees above the road.I saw yellow eyes, a finely streaked face, and rufous collar and occipital face. Head and upperparts were brown-clearly a brown morph bird. The tail was dark with 6 or 7 whitish bars. The breast had a center that was brown, and brown flanks, between them two white white areas. Song was a rapid piping, prolonged for about 30 seconds. Notes were vaguely paired.  Excellent. A beautiful bird.

We ate a great lunch at Miriam's veranda, surrounded by lots of common birds. After lunch we tried to organize a horseback ride, but failed. We did see a stunning pair of quetzales by the river. We lazed away much of the afternoon at Miriam's. We walked trail 1 in the afternoon, and then ate another delicious meal at Miriam's. After last nights exploits we went to bed early.

2/11 I awoke at 1am and returned to the saw-whet site. This time, I spent a lot of time listening for responses. I also probed the habitat. At one point I saw a pair of low, wide-set eyes in my light. Scared of a puma, I advanced, so as not to appear like prey. The eyes eventually raised to reveal themselves to be those of a cow! By 4am, it became quite windy, and the owling potential poor. It was also really cold-the grass was encrusted with frost. An hour later the wind relented, and I frantically tried to locate an owl, before the skies lightened. It was to know avail, and soon I was done for.

I heard a Costa Rican Pygmy owl near the cabin, but this time it flew away in response to the tape. Back at the cabin I dozed for a couple of hours. Tui and I then ate a great breakfast and said goodbye to Miriam. We drove to Fela's horseback riding down the hill and enjoyed an easy 90 minute ride along the valley bottom. Another first for Tui.

We then drove across Cerro de Muerte, which was beautiful-so bright and clear, and on to Bosque de Tollumuco above San Isidro. We ditched our bags at the room, and then drove on to Cloud Bridge Rainforest Reserve. Here we hiked up a rugged canyon past many waterfalls.

We ate late at a restaurant at km 119 on the interamerican. We had a perfect view of San Isidro, far below. At the edge of town a couple of brush fires burned spectacularly in the night.

Back at Tollomuco I found a very cooperative bare-shanked screech-owl, and enjoyed views down to 5'. Like the last bird, it held its wings open and fanned it's tail. Unlike the last bird, it called a lot. I also got to discern it's greenish-gray bill.

2.12 We ate another huge breakfast. Our host Lise showed us sequential pictures of the screech owl's ground nest. What am amazing find.

We drove down to the Pacific coast, where we visited Hacienda Baru. At the visitor's center we saw photos of spectacled owls, so we scanned the forest carefully, but came up short. We did get to see lots of white-faced capuchins. Tui also got bit by a swarm of ants. We found a sloth curled up on the ground, looking like it was dying. The Pacific was big, quiet and beautiful.

We drove North West along the pacific highway to Quepos, where we ate lunch and watched the tide come in. The drive back to Vida Tropical was easy, apart from some rush hour traffic in town. I had thoughts of venturing out that night to redeem myself and find a saw-whet. Instead I hatched a plan to travel to Chiapas to satisfy my quest.

2.13 Another beautiful morning. I am sorry to leave such a beautiful country, but excited to see dad and Charlie. Surprisingly we were able to drop off the rental car with no hassles. Everything else went well on our flight home.