Itinerary note: Costa Rica has six active volcanoes, the unpredictable periodic eruptions of which can occasionally require us to make changes locally to our advertised tour itinerary. Although the Poas Volcano National Park remained closed to visitors at the time of our visit in April 2018 (following a series of eruptions in April 2017 year), our wonderful lodgings here lie outside the park boundary and our group was able to enjoy good birding at alternative sites nearby. The national park partially reopened to visitors again in August 2018, but in the event the park is off limits when we are there, our guides will make alternative arrangements for birding during our stay at Poas Volcano Lodge.
FLY LONDON NONSTOP TO SAN JOSÉ
Our April birdwatching tour to Costa Rica begins with a morning departure from London Gatwick on British Airways nonstop service to Costa Rica. We’ll be met on arrival in San José this afternoon and transfer the short distance to our comfortable hotel nearby.
The Trapp Family Country Inn is a veritable little oasis located just one mile from the Juan Santamaria International Airport (near Alajuela), in Costa Rica’s beautiful Central Valley. This colonial style hotel is surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens and the perfect place to begin our tour. Night Trapp Family Country Inn, San José
GUANACASTE COAST & HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS AT MONTEVERDE
The gardens of our San José hotel will provide early risers with an exciting start to the tour as we get to grips with some of Costa Rica's more familiar birds. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Red-billed Pigeon, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Clay-coloured Thrush and Blue-grey Tanager are among possible treats in store!
Our route to the lush cloud forests of Monteverde will take us through a very different environment: the dry Guanacaste, along Costa Rica's Pacific Coast. Within an hour of our departure from the hotel we will find ourselves birding this unique habitat in search of Double-striped Thick-Knee, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-throated Magpie-jay, Banded Wren, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia and many more.
A stop at Caldera Bay should produce menacing Magnificent Frigatebirds and the big Brown Pelican. The nearby salt pans hold an assortment of terns, gulls and waders such as Willet, Stilt and Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers and Black Skimmer.
As the temperature starts to rise, so shall we - in altitude that is! - as we make our way up the winding and very scenic mountain road to the cooler climes surrounding Monteverde.
In the afternoon we will visit the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery, where no fewer than seven species of these beautiful winged jewels can be studied at close range. Specialities here include the lovely Magenta-throated Woodstar, the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald, the enormous (... for a hummingbird!) Violet Sabrewing and the vibrant Purple-throated Mountaingem.
Our destination for this and the following night is a new timber lodge enjoying views over the gardens to the cloud forest beyond. Night Trapp Family Lodge, Monteverde
CLOUD FORESTS OF MONTEVERDE
An early visit to the nearby entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve will always produce something of interest. Resplendent Quetzals feeding in a fruiting tree; Golden-bellied Flycatchers picking off insects at the night light; or Blue-throated Toucanets working on a nest hole are just a few of the possibilities.
After breakfast, we head out to Curi Cancha Reserve, where we have another chance to see Resplendent Quetzal. Once inside the forests here we will be on the lookout for many species of furnariids (or ovenbirds), which are well represented here. Possibilities include Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Streak-breasted Treehunter and the elusive Grey-throated Leaftosser... you have to love those names! Mixed species flocks moving through the forest canopy and undergrowth may contain Spotted and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Yellowish Flycatcher, Ochraceous Wren, Grey-breasted Wood-wren and Black-eared Warbler. We might also find Prong-billed Barbet, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and the spritely Slate-throated Whitestart, too.
Elusive skulkers to watch for on the forest floor include Highland Tinamou and Buff-fronted Quail-dove, while the handsome Azure-hooded Jay lurks in the canopy. Among fascinating forest mammals here we have chances of White-throated Capuchin, Central American Agouti, and Hoffman's and Brown-throated Sloths.
As dusk descends over Monteverde's forests, we return for another delicious dinner at our lodge - and an option afterwards to search for Mottled Owl and Bare-shanked Screech Owl; both species are resident here. Night Trapp Family Lodge, Monteverde
THE TOLLING OF THE BELLBIRD & TRANSFER TO ARENAL VOLCANO
One key species we hope to see this morning is the amazing Three-wattled Bellbird. They are easily heard throughout the Monteverde area at this time of year and, with patience, we may enjoy views of a displaying male with its three characteristic worm-like extensions dangling at the base of its beak. Other species to look for in the Bellbird reserve include the shy Chiriqui Quail-dove, Lesson's Motmot, Long-tailed Manakin, Rufous-and-white Wren, White-eared Ground Sparrow and Elegant Euphonia.
After lunch in Monteverde, we will transfer to our next exciting destination: Arenal. The pastures and farms along the route soon give way to a beautiful lush rainforest encircling the base of this impressive cinder cone volcano. As we make our way into new habitats, new birds will likely come thick and fast!
By late afternoon we will have arrived at our beautiful home for the next three nights. Perched high on a ridge less than two miles from the Arenal Volcano, our lodge here offers stunning views of both the cinder cone and Arenal Lake. Night Arenal Observatory Lodge
THE ARENAL VOLCANO AREA
The Caribbean foothills of the Arenal Volcano are indeed spectacular and with two full days here we will be able to explore them thoroughly.
The gardens, woodland edge and forest trails of the Arenal Observatory Lodge are not only beautiful but provide excellent birding opportunities. Hummingbirds are abundant amongst the vervain flowers. Stripe-throated Hermit, Crowned Woodnymph, Brown Violetear, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Violet-headed Hummingbird and the enchanting Black-crested Coquette are typical species to watch for. Around the edge of the garden and along Arenal's forest trails, we will endeavour to entice out 'skulkers' such as Thicket Antpitta, Spotted Antbird and no fewer than nine species of wren, including Song, Northern Nightingale, Black-throated and Stripe-breasted, as well as the attractive White-breasted Wood Wren.
The fruit feeding station near the restaurant is a gathering place for our group... and for good reason! A ‘fruit salad’ of watermelon, papaya and bananas put out by the lodge staff attracts a fabulous variety of colourful birds. Here, the blues of Red-legged Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers mix with the greens of Green Honeycreepers, yellow of Yellow-throated Euphonia, reds and blacks of Passerini’s and Crimson-collared Tanagers, and chestnut of Montezuma Oropendolas... to dazzling effect! Scraps that fall beneath the feeders attract engaging White-nosed Coatis, along with foraging Black-striped Sparrows and even the occasional Great Curassow. While all this is going on, we will enjoy our own breakfast in sight of the feeders.
Birding beside picturesque Lake Arenal is equally rewarding, with every stop likely to produce new and interesting species. This is a superb area for Crested Guan and Grey-headed Chachalaca, while toucans are well represented with Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracari and occasionally even the rare Yellow-eared Toucanet. We’ll also watch for three species of motmot: the big Rufous, Broad-billed and the rare Keel-billed Motmot. No less than four species of antshrike occur here, too: Russet, Great, Fasciated and Barred, while two more crowd pleasers - Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Long-tailed Tyrant - can often be seen hunting for insects beside the road. In the vine tangles we will search for Long-billed Gnatwren and Yellow-billed Cacique, while the ‘grassy bits’ hide White-throated Crake, Slaty Spinetail, both Olive-crowned and Grey-crowned Yellowthroats, and up to five species of seedeaters. Some very interesting raptors could also be seen overhead and possibilities include the beautiful White Hawk and Ornate Hawk-eagle.
Costa Rica’s forest mammals are often tricky to find, but we could see three species of monkey at Arenal: Mantled Howler, Central American Spider Monkey and White-throated Capuchin. Two-toed (or Brown-throated) Sloths are also present in the trees - though not always easy to spot as they are not quite so active!
On our second morning at Observatory Lodge we explore trails near the Arenal Hanging Bridges, which pass through an area of steep ravines and primary rainforest that offers a great opportunity for viewing specialist forest species.
Mixed feeding flocks in this area can carry with them an array of local specialities, with such treats as White-ruffed Manakin, Tawny-capped Euphonia and Emerald Tanager to check for amidst more numerous flock components such as Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper and White-shouldered, Bay-headed and Speckled Tanagers.
Whilst working Arenal’s trails we will keep watch for undergrowth skulkers such as Dull-mantled Antbird, Black-headed Nightingale-thrush and several of the aforementioned wrens. A real coup would be to encounter an army ant swarm with its attendant Spotted, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds! Just walking through the forest is reason enough to visit this marvellous site, but the potential for finding such seldom seen species should make this a truly unforgettable morning of birding.
All in all, our three-night stay in Arenal should prove to be very special, packed with dramatic scenery, good food... and plenty of great birds! Nights Arenal Observatory Lodge
LA FORTUNA, LOS CHILES BOAT TRIP & CAÑO NEGRO
After savouring a final early morning near the Observatory Lodge, we travel to nearby La Fortuna to visit a reserve on the edge of town. Banana feeders attract a multitude of colourful tropical species making it an excellent spot to photograph them at close range. Goodies within this small private reserve include the diminutive (for a woodpecker) Olivaceous Piculet, Slaty Spinetail and the localised Uniform Crake along with the sometimes more confiding White-throated Crake and Rufous-naped Wood Rail.
Following lunch we bid farewell to the Arenal area and travel to the far north-central sector of Costa Rica - and the wetlands of Caño Negro.
Late afternoon will find us enjoying a boat trip on a canal near Los Chiles. This new addition for birders has proved to be a gold mine for a number of localized specialities including Pinnated Bittern, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, Nicaraguan Seed-finch, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and the rare Nicaraguan Grackle to name but a few. Crakes are well represented here so we'll keep alert for these denizens of the wet edges.
Our destination for dinner this evening is Caño Negro, where we will spend two nights at the comfortable and air-conditioned Natural Lodge. Night Natural Lodge, Caño Negro
CAÑO NEGRO BOAT TRIPS
A major highlight of this area for visiting birders is the opportunity to enjoy some excellent boat trips along the Caño Negro waterways. Birds are plentiful and the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge is home to a fine array of speciality birds. This area is the only regular site in Costa Rica for Black-collared Hawk, Grey-headed Dove and Spot-breasted Wren. But perhaps the most notable species here is the Nicaraguan Grackle, a species whose range is restricted to only three lakes and surrounding wetlands - two in Nicaragua, and here in the Caño Negro region of Costa Rica. Even here, the grackle is present only as a breeding visitor from Nicaragua - but April represents the heart of the nesting season, so we should have little difficulty finding this localised speciality on our boat trips in the area.
During the morning trip, we will be keeping a keen eye open for the strange Boat-billed Heron hiding in trees at their day roosts. Other possible highlights may include the pied-footed Sungrebe swimming near trees overhanging the water, the enormous Jabiru, Mangrove Cuckoo and an abundance of kingfishers. Spectacled Caiman are common. If conditions allow, we may go ashore to investigate wooded bluffs alongside the river - Lineated, Black-cheeked and Hoffmann's Woodpeckers, Olivaceous Piculet and Northern Royal Flycatcher are possible.
After lunch and a welcome siesta back at the lodge, we will take a second boat trip along a different section of the Caño Negro, providing more sightings and photographic opportunities in this bird-rich environment. Returning to shore, we have a chance to check for Great Potoo not far from the lodge. Night Natural Lodge, Caño Negro
[Please note that operation of the above boat trips is dependent on water levels and river access at the time of our visit.]
CAÑO NEGRO TO LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS & POAS VOLCANO LODGE
We depart Caño Negro after breakfast and bird our way back to the main road. This can be a good stretch for raptors with Black-collared Hawk, Bat and Laughing Falcons, and Harris's Hawk among those we've recorded on previous trips. We travel on to La Paz Waterfall Garden, where a buffet lunch fit for a king awaits us!
After lunch, we will concentrate on the variety of hummingbird species that attend the garden’s feeders, enjoying the ceaseless comings and goings of Green Hermit, Green Thorntail, Violet Sabrewing, Purple-throated Mountaingem and Black-bellied Hummingbird to name but a few. There are plenty of other birds in the area, too - from Silver-throated and Crimson-collared Tanagers to Sooty-faced Finches and Black-cowled Orioles. Along the forest trails we may well run into roving feeding flocks that can hold Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush and gorgeous Bay-headed and Spangled-cheeked Tanagers among many others.
From La Paz, we continue the short distance to Poas Volcano Lodge, where we spend our final two nights in Costa Rica. Set at an elevation of 1850m (6000ft), it will be quite cool here this evening. Night Poas Volcano Lodge
POAS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
After a good breakfast, we set off for nearby Poas Volcano National Park, just 25 minutes drive from our lodge. This being our first visit to Costa Rica's highlands, new species will come with relative ease. Poas also gives us another opportunity to look for what many birders consider the most beautiful bird in the New World: Resplendent Quetzal. Other avian highlights in this enchanting oak-dominated highland forest might include Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Long-tailed and Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatchers, Sooty Thrush, Yellow-winged Vireo, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush Tanager, Large-footed Finch, Black-thighed Grosbeak... and perhaps even a rarity such as the Zeledonia or Wrenthrush - which is neither a wren nor a thrush!
If the summit road is open at the time of our visit, we'll drive up to an elevation of 2700m (8858ft) to view the volcano's impressive crater lake, with its turquoise and green waters and sulphurous fumaroles. Night Poas Volcano Lodge
RETURN TO SAN JOSÉ, FLY LONDON
It's our last day in Costa Rica today, but there should be time to enjoy some final birding - and another great breakfast at Poas Volcano Lodge - this morning. Our 2018 group 'signed out' with American Dipper, Sooty-faced Finch, Bay Wren, Slaty Flowerpiecer and a very obliging Flame-throated Warbler...
We board our bus for the transfer back to San José and check-in there for our British Airways afternoon flight home.
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
Morning arrival at London Gatwick, where our April birdwatching tour to Northern Costa Rica concludes.