Costa Rica birding

Slaty Flowerpiercer. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Costa Rica birds amaze Wyoming birders

By Barb Gorges

            “Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-throated Toucan, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-collared Manakin”—these were some of the names that rolled off our tongues as my husband, Mark, and I spotted birds in Costa Rica on a trip in early November.

            I saw two species endemic to Costa Rica found nowhere else (remember, it’s only 20 percent the size of Wyoming): Coppery-headed Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, on the edge of a new clearing for an apartment building.

            We saw 32 regional endemics, often meaning the species is found only in Costa Rica and neighboring Panama. My favorite, the Slaty Flowerpiercer, cleverly pierces the base of large flowers to extract nectar. Later, hummingbirds come by and get nectar too.

Snowcap, a type of hummingbird, is a regional endemic, ranging from southern Honduras to western Panama, including Costa Rica. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            We drove up Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), to 11,400 feet where all the communications towers are, to find the Volcano Junco. It’s another regional endemic, cousin of the juncos under our feeders in winter. It obligingly hopped around in front of us.

            Of the 234 species I saw in seven straight days of birding, 187 were life birds. The others, mostly migrants, I’d seen in North America previously.

            The top six bird groups I saw were hummingbirds (27 species), flycatchers (23), warblers (17), tanagers (12), woodpeckers (10) and wrens (9). Mario Cordoba H., our guide, explained Costa Rica has a lot of bird diversity (922 species), but not a lot of any one species—no big flocks.

Silvery-throated Tanager. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Mario, a native of Costa Rica, has been in the guiding business more than 20 years. Bird Watcher’s Digest contracted with his company, Crescentia Expeditions, to plan and guide the trip. Mario included a variety of habitats and alternated hikes in the forest to see elusive birds like Streak-headed Woodcreepers with stops for nectar feeder stations where bright-colored birds like the Fiery-throated Hummingbird were the target of everyone’s cameras.

Mario Cordoba, Crescentia Expeditions owner/guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Feeding stations filled with fruit at one ecolodge attracted the turkey-sized, prehistoric-looking Great Curassow. A frequent feeder visitor everywhere was the Blue-gray Tanager. It reminded me of our Mountain Bluebird. I even saw it buzzing around our bus, checking out the sideview mirrors and roof, the way the bluebirds do in spring.

Yellow-throated Toucan. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            There are many aspects to travelling in Central America beyond birding. For instance, lodging. Our first and last nights we stayed at two different boutique hotels. Hotel Bougainvillea is the one with 10 acres of bird-filled gardens.

            The three ecolodges in between were in rural areas and a little more rustic: Arenal Observatory Lodge, Selva Verde and Paraiso Quetzal. Mario picked these for their proximity to bird diversity. There are more independently owned lodges scattered across the country.

            For lunch and dinner, we often had “Typical Plate” – rice, beans, vegetables and meat (chicken, beef, pork). Up in the mountains, trout was an option because people farm trout there.

            Some of our travelling companions tired of beans and rice, and tired of the rain—we were maybe a little early anticipating the dry season—but otherwise, we were a congenial group of 12, plus Mario, Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest’s managing editor, and Ricardo, our fearless bus driver. He was also great at spotting birds and taking photos through the spotting scope with our smart phones without an adaptor. I’m going to have to learn that art. There were no bird snobs. Everyone wanted to help everyone see birds.

            Costa Rica has been a leader in eco-tourism. Its map shows a large percentage of land in national parks and preserves.

            Mountain farmers have been encouraged to hang on to their wild avocado trees, providing the favorite food and habitat of the resplendent quetzal. It is the green bird with the nearly 3-foot-long tail feathers revered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In return, the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation’s quetzal project brings birdwatchers out to see them, paying the farmer $5 a head—not a small sum in the local economy.

            We saw dangerous animals. In the dim light along the trail at La Selva Biological Station there was a bright yellow Eyelash Pit Viper arranged on the side of a log. The Mantled Howler Monkeys overhead were watching visitors as much as being watched. Mosquitoes, however, were nearly non-existent. Mark and I wore our permethrin-treated field clothes anyway.

            I think how neat it would be if Wyoming too, had a cadre of trained naturalist guides and ecolodges in the vicinity of more of our interesting wildlife—not just the elk and wolves.

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Foreign field trips widen birding horizons

Secretary Bird

The Secretary Bird requires travel to Africa to be seen in its native habitat. Courtesy WIkipedia.

Published Nov. 14, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding trips can take watcher to distant lands.”

2014 Update: J-G Travel is still in business in Denver. Friends traveled with Jose to Africa the year after his presentation and had a wonderful time.

By Barb Gorges

Who would have dreamed we’d celebrate a white Halloween in a drought year—and that the snow would be around for another week?

The wintery cold and gloom had birds swarming our feeders the way they never do during our otherwise mild winters. Wyoming birders reported mixed flocks of Canada and snow geese heading south.

And remember those icy streets the week before? That weather was foreshadowed back in August when Jose (pronounced Joe-say) Goncalves, owner of J-G Travel in Denver, called me.

Since I’m listed as a chapter contact on the National Audubon website, it isn’t unusual to have the occasional traveler call and ask where to bird while visiting Cheyenne.

However, this time I got an offer to travel. Jose has been in the travel business for over 25 years, organizing custom tours for various groups including museums and universities. Where would I like to take a birding trip? Central or South America? Africa? Asia?

The intriguing part of the offer was I could go for free if I were the trip leader. This was enticing. I haven’t been out of the country since 1975, except to walk over to Juarez, Mexico and to fish in Saskatchewan.

“But I don’t know anything about foreign birds,” I protested. No problem. Jose hires local experts. My main job would be to recruit the other travelers.

I am familiar with this way of organizing trips. My brother-in-law has recruited fellow travelers for several. He brought his digital photos with him when he visited this summer so we got to see Spain and China by hooking up his camera to our TV.

Peter has two essential attributes that make these adventures successful. He knows people who can afford to travel and people automatically trust him because he’s a retired priest.

My mother always warned me about strangers, so to take Jose out of that category, I invited him to be Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society’s guest speaker for the October meeting. He hesitated and joked about the weather that time of year.

Oh pshaw, I said, you can always stay over with one of the members after the meeting if it gets too nasty.

The streets did ice over that night. Jose e-mailed me later to say he got back home to Denver that night just fine, though a bit slowly.

It proved Jose not only knows the weather patterns where he travels, but he is intrepid. Unfortunately, many of our chapter’s members and friends weren’t and missed a fine presentation.

Jose is a trim, silver-haired gentleman with an accent that hints of not just world traveling, but world living. He was born in Portugal (thus, the Portuguese pronunciation of his name), but his father moved the family to a ranch in Mozambique when Jose was young. He went to school in South Africa before attending Denver University.

Jose’s slides were all his own work from a variety of African wildlife-watching safaris and included wonderful portraits of lions and elephants and birds.

While other wildlife photographers would have brought animal photos exclusively, Jose slipped in a few of the tourist accommodations. I liked the thatched-roofed tree house myself.

Anyone paging through the back of a birding magazine can choose from any number of pre-planned trips for which I would probably never meet the owner of the company.

Ads in the November issue of Birder’s World name-drop exotic geography: Costa Rica, the Dry Tortugas, San Blas, Trinidad, Tobago, Belize, Tikal, Amazon, Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Yucatan, Panama, Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom (well, it would be exotic to me since I’ve never been there), Borneo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, New Guinea, China, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Bhutan, Malaysia, Himalayas, Scottish Isles, Iceland, Pribilof Islands, Venezuela, Peru, the Arctic, Newfoundland, Patagonia, Morocco and Spain.

Some of these locations are mentioned in half a dozen ads, making me wonder if the bird watchers stand elbow to elbow.

Many destinations are to developing countries where eco-tourism is a major industry.

Jose said his African guides go to “guide school” and are knowledgeable interpreters of their local environment.

For the tropical birds, I wonder if it matters what time of year one looks for them. Does their plumage change seasonally in a place when there are only two seasons? When are the wet and dry seasons anyway? Guess I better study a little world bird geography.

From my family’s point of view, this would not be a good year for me to fly off to foreign parts for a few weeks, free ticket notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, I told Jose to keep in touch, especially if some enterprising Denver birder organizes a tour.

And meanwhile, I’m envious of those migrating geese whose sole preparation for foreign travel seems to be gorging on food.