FLY LONDON TO SAN JOSÉ
Our two-week birdwatching tour to Costa Rica begins with a morning departure from London Gatwick on British Airways twice-weekly nonstop service to San José, capital of Costa Rica. We’ll be met on arrival in San José this afternoon by our local guide and transfer directly to our comfortable hotel. Night San José
SAN JOSÉ - VIA LA PAZ HUMMINGBIRD GARDEN - TO SELVA VERDE
A walk first thing in the beautiful grounds of our hotel offers a great introduction to our Classic Costa Rica tour. Here we should see our first tropical birds in the form of Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Motmot, Great Kiskadee, Rufous-capped Warbler, Blue-grey Tanager, Greyish Saltator, Rufous-collared Sparrow and White-eared Ground Sparrow.
After breakfast, we set off on a scenic journey through coffee plantations and highland forest patches on the slopes of first the Barva Volcano and then Poas Volcano before arriving to La Paz Waterfall Garden for hummingbird overload!
The fruit feeders at La Paz can hold Silver-throated, Crimson-collared and Passerini’s Tanagers along with Common Chlorospingus... but the buzzing of hummingbirds below will soon beckon us down to the feeders. An incredible variety of hummingbird species can be seen at close range here, among them such delights as Green Hermit, Green Thorntail, Violet Sabrewing, Magenta-throated Woodstar, both White-bellied and Purple-throated Mountain-gems, the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald and the unique Black-bellied Hummingbird to name but a few. Other birds to watch for in the area include Sooty-faced Finch and Black-cowled Oriole, while on the forest trails we may run into roving feeding flocks comprising the likes of Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush and gorgeous Bay-headed and Spangled-cheeked Tanagers among many others.
After an excellent buffet lunch we will continue downslope to La Virgen del Socorro, a forested valley in the Caribbean foothills. We will search for mixed flocks which here could hold Collared Trogon, Russet Antshrike and Speckled Tanager while a Torrent Tyrannulet or American Dipper is always possible on the rocks of the rushing river below. Raptors present include Swallow-tailed Kite, and both White and Barred Hawks.
In the late afternoon, we make our way to La Quinta Country Inn, our comfortable lodgings for the next two nights. In the evening, we can listen out for Spectacled Owls around the lodge. Night La Quinta Country Inn
LA SELVA - CARIBBEAN LOWLAND BIRDING AT ITS BEST
This day in the Caribbean lowlands promises to be one of the best days of the tour, filled with an abundance of tropical wildlife sightings. We will want to make an early start to take in one of the best birding sites in the New World tropics: La Selva Biological Station.
La Selva protects some of the best remaining lowland rainforest in all Costa Rica. Colourful butterflies and feisty hummingbirds abound and as we walk the forest trails the likes of Great Tinamou, Snowy Cotinga, and Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots await. Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans call from the tops of prominent trees as cacophanous groups of Mealy and Red-lored Parrots wing past overhead. Great Green Macaws have been increasing in numbers in the area and we hope to get views of this most impressive member of the parrot family. As we watch and listen for an array of forest tinamous, trogons, motmots, woodcreepers and antbirds, with patience other avian treasures will be revealed to us - perhaps a cryptically marked Vermiculated Screech Owl roosting motionless in the vine tangles of the mid-canopy; a White-necked Puffbird perched out on a sunlit branch; or a Rufous-tailed Jacamar hawking insects from a looping liana.
Mammals are well represented at La Selva with Two-toed and Three-toed Sloths, White-throated Capuchin, Mantled Howler, Central American Spider Monkey, Collared Peccary and Central American Agouti all possible. We might also spot the dragon-like Green Basilisk Lizard, the huge Green Iguana, and the diminutive Green-and-black and Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs.
We return for a second night at our comfortable lodge, where another excellent dinner awaits us. The air-conditioning will feel especially welcome this evening after a long but satisfying day in the field. Night La Quinta Country Inn
BOAT RIDE ON RIO SARAPIQUI, OLD BUTTERFLY GARDEN & TO RANCHO NATURALISTA
This morning we will board a boat for a two-hour ride along the Rio Sarapiqui. As we cruise the tranquil waterway, wildlife is not only prevalent but also seemingly quite tame. Herons, kingfishers and other riparian specialists should all be present and we have chances of seeing Sunbittern, Green Ibis, Buff-rumped Warbler, Mantled Howlers, Three-toed Sloth and giant Green Iguanas. A real prize would be a close encounter with the unique Sungrebe, the only member of the finfoot family in the New World.
After the boat trip, we will make a concerted effort to locate the beautiful Fasciated Tiger Heron along one of their favourite stretches of river, before paying a visit to the old butterfly garden for more exceptional hummingbird viewing. The hummers just can’t seem to resist the large patch of Vervain flowers present here and we should be rewarded by excellent views of such jewels as Violet-headed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, the stunning Black-crested Coquette and the incomparable Snowcap. The surrounding forest can be terrific for mixed flocks, among them many species of colourful tanagers including Golden-hooded, Black-and-yellow, Speckled and Bay-headed.
After lunch, a quick stop at another feeding station in a small village should produce close views of more hummingbirds, with chances of both Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and Blue-chested Hummingbird. Grey-necked Wood Rails seem especially tame here and the proprietor usually has Spectacled Owls on a nearby roost - and sometimes the wonderful Crested Owl, too.
The afternoon will find us making our way to our next lodge: famous Rancho Naturalista, where we stay for three nights. Set at an elevation of 900m in the Talamanca Mountains, Rancho has been a firm favourite with all our participants on recent tours. On a clear day, the views westward from the lodge are superb and we can relax with a welcome chilled beer whilst watching animated White-necked Jacobins and Green-breasted Mangos buzzing to within arm’s reach on the veranda as the sun sets over the distant volcanic peaks of Irazu and Turrialba. Night Rancho Naturalista
Days 5 - 6
Our days at Rancho will begin with the local ‘alarm clocks’ - bugling Montezuma Oropendolas and squawking Grey-headed Chachalacas - calling excitedly outside our rooms. With coffee served on the balcony at dawn and spectacular views of the valley as a backdrop, we’ll thrill to an incredible variety of birds at the lodge’s feeders. Brilliant Orange-billed Sparrows join wonderful Passerini’s Tanagers for this impressive feeding frenzy, while flowering hedges are attractive to hummingbirds, with further chances of the wine-coloured Snowcap and delightful Black-crested Coquette.
After breakfast, our mornings at Rancho will be spent discovering the lodge's wonderful trails, watching for the likes of Gartered Trogon, Plain-brown and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dull-mantled Antbird and other alluring forest dwellers. Nearby, we may see Chequer-throated Antwren, the highly localized Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant plus a trio of manakins: White-collared, White-crowned and White-ruffed. On our second morning we will drive just a short distance to a rocky river to locate the resident Sunbitterns. We should get excellent views of this unique and beautiful species as it forages beside the water and, with luck, we will also see them in flight - showing the amazing sunbursts from which the species derives its name.
In a nearby valley we will search for tanager flocks, which can hold an astounding number of colourful species including Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed and Black-and-yellow. An open area on the way back often produces the localised White-throated Flycatcher along with White-tailed Kite, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat and a selection of seedeaters.
Back at the lodge in the late afternoons, we will sit quietly beside Rancho’s famous ‘Hummingbird Pools’, where we should be treated to dazzling views of Crowned Woodnymphs and Purple-crowned Fairies as they bathe on the wing, while Golden-crowned Warblers and even the furtive Tawny-throated Leaftosser may visit. Remarkably, we could encounter a dozen or more varieties of hummingbird at Rancho. And when our eyes grow weary of trying to keep pace with the ceaseless activity of these avian jewels, we can turn our attention to less energetic fare such as Plain Antvireo, Stripe-breasted Wren, White-breasted Wood Wren and Masked Tityra... the list of possibilities here seems boundless! Two further nights Rancho Naturalista
RANCHO NATURALISTA TO TAPANTI NATIONAL PARK AREA
Our final morning at Rancho will find us birding at a nearby reservoir. This wetland site has attracted a number of localised species in Costa Rica, with Snail Kite, Limpkin, Shiny Cowbird and Red-breasted Blackbird to look for amongst the more widespread Eastern Meadowlarks and Giant Cowbirds.
From here, we journey on through the coffee plantations of the Cartago Valley, stopping to look for more speciality birds along the way. Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush and the appealing Prevost’s Ground Sparrow are among key species to look for in the coffee plantations. This is another excellent area for birds and time permitting we may try some 'owling' tonight in hopes of coaxing in a Bare-shanked Screech Owl or Mottled Owl. Night Hotel Rio Perlas
TAPANTI NATIONAL PARK & THE SAVEGRE VALLEY
Tapanti is one of the most scenic of all Costa Rica’s national parks. With an altitudinal range between 1300 and 1600 metres on the country's Caribbean slope, the habitat of wet pre-montane forest holds many specialities we will be searching for today.
Near the entrance to the park, Green-fronted Lancebills hawk insects along the streams as we search for other gems such as Black-bellied Hummingbird, White-winged Tanager and the delicate Elegant Euphonia. Mixed species flocks are a regular highlight at Tapanti and often include the stunning Red-headed Barbet, along with its larger but less colourful cousin the Prong-billed Barbet. The dazzling Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Ochraceous Wren and Three-striped Warbler regularly travel with the busy flocks, too. Riverside specialists here include bobbing American Dippers and the darling Torrent Tyrannulet, while the understory conceals Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. On the rare event we enjoy a sunny day in these mist-laden mountains, we will be on the lookout for soaring raptors such as Barred Hawk, and both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles.
After lunch at Tapanti, we set off for the cooler highlands. Climbing out of Cartago on the Pan American Highway, we will soon reach the montane oak forest of San Gerardo de Dota and the headwaters of the Rio Savegre. Almost every birding stop will add new and unique species to our growing bird list, many of which can only be seen in the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. We should arrive at our tucked away mountain retreat located beside the Rio Savegre in time for a delicious dinner (fresh trout being the speciality of the area), at the start of a two-night stay. Night Trogon Lodge
SAVEGRE VALLEY AND HIGHLAND SPECIALITIES
The Savegre Valley is situated at an elevation of 2200m. Birds often seem especially tame here, with Mountain Elaenia, Tufted Flycatcher and the sociable Acorn Woodpecker common in the forests, while Blue-throated Toucanet, Collared Whitestart and Flame-throated Warbler are amongst the most stunning of all Costa Rica’s species. There are yet more 'hummers' to enjoy here - from sparkling Lesser Violetears and White-throated Mountain-gems to Volcano, Scintillant and Striped-tailed Hummingbirds.
It's also in this valley that we will watch for the crown jewel of Central American birds - the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal. February marks the beginning of the breeding season for this remarkable bird and with any luck we will have the opportunity to ponder how the males manage to enter their nest hole and incubate the eggs - yet keeping their extraordinary tail hanging outside and looking for all the world like a fern growing on the side of a tree!
After we have birded the productive grounds of the lodge, to save our legs we will take an open-air ride by 4WD vehicle up a steep track to reach the Los Robles and Quebrada Trails. Among many birds to look for here amidst the primary oak cloud forest are Costa Rican Pygmy Owl, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ochraceous Pewee, Black-cheeked Warbler and Large-footed Finch.
As night falls, we will make a special effort to find another of the localised Chiriqui highland endemics, the Dusky Nightjar, before returning to spend a second night at our peaceful lodge. Night Trogon Lodge
THE PARAMO TO PUNTA LEONA
Leaving Savegre this morning, we will take a short southerly diversion up to high altitude, where the windswept paramo (at 3400m above sea level) is home to high level specialities such as Sooty Thrush, Timberline Wren, Volcano Junco and the localised bamboo specialist, Peg-billed Finch.
From here, we backtrack a little to our next stop, which is set at a slightly lower elevation. This second area, known as Paraiso Quetzal, offers our best chances to find the appealing Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher as well as getting close views of Fiery-throated Hummingbird.
Bidding farewell to Costa Rica's highlands, we then drop back down to San José and continue to descend to the Pacific coast. Our destination this evening is Punta Leona, in the Central Pacific lowlands. We should arrive in time to make an initial exploration of the hotel’s wooded grounds. One of the undoubted highlights here are the numerous and very handsome Scarlet Macaws, which nest on the property. Night Punta Leona
Days 11 - 12
PUNTA LEONA, CARARA NATIONAL PARK, GUANACASTE & BOAT RIDE ON THE RIO TARCOLES
As we gather outside our cabins, the early morning comes alive with tropical sounds. Little Tinamou, Gartered, Baird’s and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Turquoise-browed and Blue-crowned Motmots, Yellow-throated Toucan, Lineated and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Streaked Flycatcher, bands of Rufous-naped Wrens and others join in a spectacular dawn chorus.
Punta Leona makes a splendid base from which to visit nearby Carara National Park. Birding here along the wide trail near the Rio Tarcoles, we should encounter many new species - from Fiery-billed Aracari and Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes to Dot-winged Antwren, Royal Flycatcher and lekking Orange-collared Manakins. In the more humid forest, Great Tinamou, Black-faced Antthrush, Streak-chested Antpitta, Golden-crowned Spadebill and Riverside Wren await. The afternoon may find us huddled down in the forest watching many colourful species come into for their daily late afternoon bath. Striking Red-capped Manakins regularly steal the show, but handsome Blue-crowned Manakins will be vying for our attention as well! Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Green Honeycreeper and migrant North American warblers are also likely to make an appearance at this popular bathing site.
The Carara area is also an excellent spot for owls. One evening we can perhaps try our luck with Striped Owl and Pacific Screech Owl, while the tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is a diurnal hunter to be looked for during daylight hours.
Our lodgings also lie close to the southern limit of the dry Guanacaste zone, just north of the Rio Tarcoles. Here the change in both the vegetation and bird-life is remarkable, with the rainforests south of the river giving way to a much drier zone north of the river. In the fields and thorn forests making up this more arid habitat, we will search for Double-striped Thick-knee, Lesser Ground-cuckoo, Cinnamon Hummingbird, the glorious Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon, the superb Long-tailed Manakin, raucous White-throated Magpie-jays, groups of Stripe-headed Sparrows and Blue Grosbeak.
Midday while in the Carara and Guanacaste areas will see us back at the lodge for a buffet lunch and a welcome air-conditioned siesta - or you might opt instead for a stroll along the white sands of the adjacent beach.
Setting off for the mouth of the Rio Tarcoles, we’ll devote our final full afternoon in Costa Rica to searching by boat for the many mangrove specialities of the area. The endemic and highly localized Mangrove Hummingbird can often be found with diligence, along with ‘Mangrove’ Common Black Hawk, Mangrove Warbler and Mangrove Vireo. Up to five species of kingfisher are possible along the river, including both the New World’s smallest member of the tribe - the diminutive American Pygmy Kingfisher - and its largest, the robust Ringed Kingfisher. Waterbirds are plentiful, with roosting Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Tricolored Heron, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, Willet and Black-necked Stilt to watch for. The beautiful Purple Gallinule and yellow-winged Northern Jacana are often seen along the edges of the river, too.
If the tide is right, the estuary at the mouth of the Rio Tarcoles can be a great spot to find roosting terns and waders. As Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans cruise overhead, and we watch our last pair of Scarlet Macaws fly past to roost, it is a reminder that we too must soon be flying away. Two further nights Punta Leona
PACIFIC COAST TO SAN JOSÉ, FLY LONDON
We should have time this morning to enjoy some final birding around the hotel before turning our backs on the deep blue waters of the Pacific and pristine white sand beaches at Punta Leona and making our way east once more into Costa Rica’s Central Valley. We'll plan to take lunch at a hotel convenient to the airport in San José before bidding farewell to our Costa Rican guide and driver and checking-in for our British Airways nonstop overnight flight home.
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
Morning arrival at London Gatwick, where our 'Classic' birdwatching tour to Costa Rica concludes.