Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hummingbirds of Costa Rica

One of the great joys of birding in Costa Rica, and probably anywhere in Central and South America, is the great number of hummingbird species that can be found. Here is a small collection of the 12 species that we saw.

Crowned Woodnymph at Villa Blanca

Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird at Lost Iguana

White-necked Jacobin at Lost Iguana

Monday, March 6, 2017

Birding Villa Blanca

My previous post started talking about the birding vacation my wife and I took to Costa Rica. This post will focus on the birding, and other nature findings, at our first stop, Hotel Villa Blanca.

Villa Blanca sports 36 cabins around the property plus a main building and several smaller outer buildings. Around the property are several self-guided trails plus a few trails are only available for guided tours or by special permission. In the day and a half that we were there we covered only a small bit of the trails.

Common Chlorospingus next to our cabin
There was a lawn area between the main building and our cabin. Most of the time we headed out, there would be new birds here to stop us. On our first walk around the property we encountered a mixed flock of birds here. The rather common and difficult to say common chlorospingus (formerly the much more comfortable common bush-tanager). They were probably the most common bird we encountered here. And seeing one of them foretold many other birds coming soon. In this garden area there was always a bananaquit happy to join in the ruckus and a rufous-tailed hummingbird looking for someone to run off.


Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
On our first morning the fog was heavy; we could barely make out the singing melodious blackbird across the path from our cabin. Then as we start up the stairs and across the lawn to breakfast this bird landing on the railing just ahead of us.

This orange-bellied trogon was hawking insects from the railing and low lampposts.

At the far-side of the lawn was the start of one of the self-guided tours that led to a hummingbird garden.

The first 50 ft of the trail was always productive. Our first time on it gave us looks at very good looks at several hummingbirds including an unexpected fiery-throated hummingbird. The fiery-throated is supposed to be at higher altitudes but after breeding they sometimes stray beyond their normal territories. While I didn't get a photograph, we did get excellent looks and could eliminate all other possibilities. On both eBird and the local checklist, this was a first for the property. And we had been in country less than 24 hours.

It was late in the breeding season so the hummingbirds were still being protective of the feeders and flowers (they really like the porterweed) so the density of hummers was low. But the variation was still high; at least for us.

There is a research center on site and on the second afternoon we wandered in and talked with one of the researchers, Estafan. The researchers also act as the nature guides on the property. Estafan looked up possible reports of the fiery-throated hummingbird for us. He then gave us permission to walk any of the closed off trains and suggested the long Henri Pittier trail. This is such a good location that it has its own eBird hotspot. It was a very nice trail but much less used and maintained than the others so we never made it all he way around. We added another 20 or so birds on this trail including another orange-bellied trogon. As we returned we saw a long line of leaf-cutter ants and discovered the purpose of some large mounds we had passed.

Leaf-cutter Ants on the March

Leaf-cutter Ant Mound

The mounds are part of the ants' nests. We found out later that the brown substance that we thought was dirt is actually the cellulose from the leaf bits that aren't broken down. The ants bring back bits of leaves to feed to fungus that they farm. They eat the fungus, not the leaves. But the fungus can't break down the all of the cellulose in the leaves. So the ants discard it just outside the nest holes.

Red-eyed tree frog
On our second, and last, night at Villa Blanca we had arranged for a night tour. We started by looking for some nighttime birds and saw a common pauraque flying low of the grass catching bugs. Our guide, Jave, knew of a tree that often had roosting birds in it and we found brown-hooded parrots and grey-headed chachalaca. We searched all around with flashlights and found several small tree frogs. Right before the end of the walk Jave tracked down a red-eyed tree frog; the iconic rain forest frog.

And as a bonus, we got to go with Jave to release a boa constrictor that Estafan had found earlier in the day. The snake really didn't want to go and Jave had to try several times to get it to release from his arm. Luckily, the are slow constrictors and probably any able-body human could unwind it as quickly as it wound itself around you.

Boa Constrictor
There is much of Villa Blanca that we didn't get to visit and I'm sure many more birds to be seen. We saw 51 species there over 10 checklists. It is some place we would love to return to and spend more time at. There are many more trails to be explored.
Green-crowned Brilliant

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Costa Rican Cloud Forest

This winter my wife and I took a trip to Costa Rica to get away from the cold weather and celebrate our anniversary. Our flights to San Jose went well with no delays. It is nice to go south and get to such a different environment without an exceedingly long flight. It was actually shorter to get to San Jose, Costa Rica than San Jose, California for us.

We arrived late in the evening and had decided to stay in San Jose. After getting our luggage, some money, a local SIM card for my phone, and checking in with the tour company, we exited customs to a large crowd welcoming visitors. We found our driver for the night. He was a the back of the crowd and we kept making eye contact as we progressed through the throngs and found some space.

One of the very nice things we found in Costa Rica was the infrastructure for tourists. We were able to easily arrange transfers so we were able to skip renting a car. It made moving from one location to another easy and relaxing and there was really only one time we might have missed having a car. But we got a bus that time with minimal waiting so it wasn't bad at all. Our first driver was Rudy; he was very friendly and informative for the 30 minute drive to the hotel. The Central Valley, made up of three cities, is home to nearly half of the country's 5 million inhabitants. Outside here the biggest population centers you will find are towns. Even at night traffic was heavy. Apparently it is horrible during the day; especially since they are currently replacing a major bridge between San Jose and the airport.

Our hotel the first night was Grano de Oro. They greeted us with a cold fruit drink in a champagne glass (something we would find at two of the other three places we stayed). The room was comfortable and we immediately tucked in for the night.

In the morning we could hear a bird calling outside our window and water running. When we left the room to get breakfast we discovered the source of the water noise: an indoor fountain. The hallways were full of tropical plants and there were several open-air courtyards, including the seating area of the restaurant. I had the standard Costa Rican fare of casado: rice, beans, fried plantains, and fruit. There were many fruit juices to choose from including a couple of fruits we were familiar with. I think we both had mango.

Chestnut-Collared Sparrow (not from the restaurant but Villa Blanca)

While sitting there eating we had our first Costa Rican bird; a chestnut-collared sparrow. Luckily, we had studied up (more on that in a later post) and could easily identify it. Number 1 of 194 species I would see there. A walk around the block picked up three more species.

As we walked to the lobby to check out we met our driver for the next leg. This was the first of several cases of good timing of us showing up just as our driver appeared. We had heard a lot of "Tico time," but only once did we have to wait for someone to show up.

Our next stop was Villa Blanca in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest near San Ramon.  Again we were met with drinks. Our cabin wasn't quite ready so we had a short walk around and had lunch. At lunch we saw a green hermit hummingbird, flying around the outdoor seats. The view from up here was amazing. And the cabins had fireplaces for the cool, damp nights.

Clouds moving in at Villa Blanca

Enjoying some simple warmth

Being in the cloud forest, most evenings the clouds start moving in around 5-6 pm. And when it comes, it comes quickly. Below are two views of the chapel on the property seen just as the fog starts gathering and then about 10 minutes later.

Next up will be the wonderful birding that we did at Villa Blanca.
Pura Vida.