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A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to finally get the chance to bird Laguna del Lagarto during three days of guiding. I emphasize “finally” because I had wondered how the birding was up there near the Nicaraguan border ever since my first trip to Costa Rica in the early 90s. It was so far off the beaten track, though, that I just never made it up that way despite always hearing promising accolades about the place.

So, when we were at long last on our way to Laguna del Lagarto, we drove up and over the mountains through the town of Zarcero with uplifted and excited hearts. Our hopes were boosted by their checklist and the fact that so much of the surrounding area was still heavily forested. Much more so in fact than Sarapiqui or any other part of the Caribbean lowlands. This certainly explains why Laguna has recorded such tough to see bird species in Costa Rica as Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Tawny-faced Quail. None of these were guaranteed by any means but we knew that just being in the area would improve our chances. Heck, we even had a remote chance at Crested and Harpy Eagles. Given the amount of unbirded habitat near Laguna del Lagarto and the fact that a friend of mine had seen Harpy Eagle up that way in 1998, it isn’t entirely out of the question to hit the jackpot with those mega-raptors on a visit to Laguna del Lagarto and surrounding areas.

Heading into the Caribbean foothill town of Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos), constant rain and heavy skies threatened to put a damper on our excitement. It didn’t faze us too much, though, because we were familiar with the long term downpours of the Caribbean Slope. I sure hoped that it would give us a break, however, and much to our delight, the falling water diminished to occasional, inconsequential drips just as we headed north from Pital.

Pital is the last bastion of asphalt as you make your way to the lodge but the gravel is actually pretty nice all the way to the village near Laguna known as Boca Tapada. It’s not as smooth going as a tarred road but it also had fewer potholes than the heavily traveled byway that leads to Arenal National Park. If one drove straight to the lodge from San Jose, I estimate a trip of just 4 hours or less. Birders, though, are going to take much longer because once you get 15 or so kilometers past Pital,the birding is pretty good!

Roadside marshes should be checked for rails, Pinnated Bittern, and other aquatic species, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch could show up (we didn’t see it but it certainly occurs), forest patches somewhat near the road should be scanned and scoped for toucans, parrots, and (most of all) raptors, and areas with old second growth should be checked out for a wide variety of species.

With brief stops in such habitats, we probably recorded 60-70 species, highlights being Gray-headed Kite, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Pied Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and White-lined Tanager. Mind you, this was mid-morning and although the overcast conditions were ideal for bird activity, I would love to see how many species I could record along that road during more productive early morning hours. It’s not ideal habitat but there is enough extensive forest within scoping distance to make it pretty exciting.

The birdiest stretch of the road is arguably the area between Boca Tapada and the lodge. At this point, productive second growth and primary forest are found on both sides and a large number of species are possible, the nunbird included. It’s worth birding even though it’s just two kilometers more to the lodge. Laguna del Lagarto has a sign but even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t miss the “v-shaped” lagoon at the entrance. No matter when you walk or drive by that lagoon, it should always be checked for Agami Heron. Although this splendiferous wader is often seen by visitors to Laguna who take a canoe out onto the muddy waters, we got ours on our last day by scanning the shaded shore right from the entrance gate to the lodge. I suspected that I had the bird because I saw a suspicious-looking gray shape in the shadows of some overhanging vegetation but it wasn’t until the heron thrust its rapier of a bill into the water that I knew for a fact that I was looking at an Agami Heron. It’s incredible how stealthy and still this species can be so it pays to very carefully scan the shores of their preferred haunts- streams, pools, and muddy lagoons in lowland forest.

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There is an Agami Heron somewhere in this image at the most reliable lodge to see it in Costa Rica- Laguna del Lagarto.

You could probably get the Agami from the lodge itself if you keep scanning for it as several of the rooms overlook the lagoon where we saw it. Speaking of the lodge, I was especially impressed with the excellent service and management provided by the manager, Alfaro. He took time out of his day to assure that each guest was getting the most out of his or her stay and kept us updated on where the Agami Heron had been sighted as well as other signature species such as Great Green Macaw. He also invited us to his “bird garden”- his very bird friendly backyard. We didn’t get the chance to visit it but from the photos of honeycreepers and tanagers that were taken at his garden, it should be a must see for any birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto with a camera.

birding Costa Rica

Rooms were comfortable and clean, the food average to good, and the feeders spectacular!

The feeders a Laguna del Lagarto consisted of a large bunch of bananas or plantains that are somehow placed on a platform twenty feet above the ground. BUT, since the dining area of the lodge is built on top of a hill, the birds that come to the feeder are seen at eye level! You almost feel as if you are sharing lunch with the toucans, parrots, oropendolas, and tanagers that visit the feeder because you can easily watch them sans binoculars while you eat.

birding Costa Rica

A head-on view of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

birding Costa Rica

Keel-billed Toucans are incredibly colorful when seen at close range.

birding Costa Rica

Collared Aracaris also partook in the feeder food but weren’t as common as their bigger bethren.

birding Costa Rica

Montezuma Oropendolas also came close enough to allow detailed studies of their clown-like faces.

The best of the larger birds, however, were Brown-hooded Parrots. There aren’t many places where you can see these guys at a feeder!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Smaller species showed up once the larger birds left. Passerini’s Tanagers were of course very common.

birding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were also present

birding Costa Rica

as were Buff-throated Saltators among a few other common species.

birding Costa Rica

It was also worth it to scan forest canopy visible from the restaurant and some of the rooms. We had looks at Great Green Macaw and more than one perched King Vulture in this way.

Kind of distant for a photo but there’s no mistaking a white vulture with black flight feathers  for anything other than a King.

birding Costa Rica

Laguna del Lagarto lodge also has trails through beautiful lowland rainforest. This type of habitat has become pretty hard to access on the Carbbean Slope so we were looking forward to spending quality birding time beneath the tall canopy. Most people experience it at La Selva but edge effects (and an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) have eliminated a number of understory bird species at that classic birding site. It was a shock, therefore, to see that a fair portion of Laguna’s forest looked as if it had been selectively logged! Apparently in 2010, a rare tornado had torn through parts of their forest and knocked over several, massive, old growth trees. It was a sad sight as we walked along muddy trails through open forest and I wondered why that tornado had to touch down at such a rare, complex, sensitive habitat instead of twirling around in some dusty, overgrazed pasture. There are still trails through intact forest at Laguna del Lagarto but I wonder if or to what extent the tornado affected bird populations. A local guide told us that canopy birds were easier to see but it looked as if understory species were less common and monkeys had certainly declined. Fortunately, the forest grows up pretty quick in the humid, rain-soaked lowlands so it will come back eventually.

During our three days at Laguna, our experiences in the forest echoed the sentiments of the guide. Canopy flocks were of regular occurrence but there were very few understory flocks and I heard very few understory species during our time there (even if you don’t run into mixed flocks of understory insectivores, you still usually detect them by sound), I have to believe that they are still around because the forest at Laguna is connected to a much larger forest block.  I suspect, though, that they aren’t as common as they were in the past. Perhaps birds such as antwrens, spadebills, antvireos, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet will increase in abundance as the forest grows up. I certainly hope so but in the meantime, to see them at Laguna del Lagarto, you may need to focus on trails through more intact parts of the forest.

Some of the highlights of our stay at Laguna del Lagarto were:

Helping out with the annual Christmas Count (run by the Rainforest Biodiversity Group- the organization that created and promotes the Costa Rican Bird Route) while birding with David and Alfredo Segura. David is a young Tico birder, Alfredo his non-birding father. They make a great team and sharing much of Laguna’s birdlife with them was a memorable experience. Maybe I will interview them some day for the blog.

Agami Heron- Laguna is certainly the most reliable and accesible site for this species in Costa Rica.

Semiplumbeous Hawk- A scoped, calling individual deep inside the forest was a major highlight of the trip.

Great Green Macaw- This lodge and surroundings have long been known as a regular site for this endangered species. We saw maybe 7 individuals and had them on each of three days.

Brown-hooded Parrots at the feeders.

Mottled Owl seen at dawn on the road in front of the lodge. Black and white was also seen around the cabins by others and we heard but did not see Central American Pygmy-Owl.

Common Potoo- We didn’t see it but we did hear it and that earns it a position on my year list!

Pied Puffbird- We saw several of this cool, little bird.

White-fronted Nunbird- One of main targets fell on our last day at the forest edge in the back part of the garden and even allowed me to take its picture.

birding Costa Rica

Thrushlike Schiffornis- We heard one of this deep forest species.

Brown-capped Tyrannulet- We had a few of these tiny, canopy flycatchers but they were always tough to see because of their size (or lack of).

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- A common bird at Laguna del Lagarto and not to difficult to see with patience.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher- We had a few inside the forest with canopy flocks but they were very difficult to see well.

Slate-colored Grosbeak- Three birds seen together and one heard.

After leaving the lodge, we drove further up the road that follows the San Carlos River and although we saw little on a sunny afternoon, the whole area looks very promising. The road signed to the San Juan Biological Reserve in particular looked fantastic as it passed through intact, primary lowland rainforest but I am honestly concerned about the safety of birding it because you are in the middle of nowhere and close to the river that marks the border with Nicaragua (which may or may not be used by drug traffickers). That might sound paranoid but since a large amount of drugs are believed to pass through Costa Rica and the tendency for rural areas in the country to be quite lawless, it’s probably best to avoid birding along that road for the time being.

birding Costa Rica

Fantastic road for birding but I don’t know how safe it is. I am sure it’s safe most of the time but it would be best to ask locals about it before birding there.

I would head back to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge or other lodges in the area in a second however, as they are safe, harbor some of the best lowland forests on the Caribbean Slope, and they probably hold some nice, feathered surprises too.

Below is a list of bird species we recorded from Pital to Laguna del Lagarto for the dates of January 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Great Tinamou- a few heard and two seen
Little Tinamou- one heard
Neotropic Cormorant- one on San carlos River
Great Blue Heron- one at laguna
Great Egret- one along road
Snowy Egret- one on river
Little Blue Heron- one along road
Cattle Egret- several along road
Agami Heron- one seen along edge of lagoon, athers also saw from canoe
Green Ibis
Black Vulture- several
Turkey Vulture-several
King Vulture- 3-4 each day from lodge
Muscovy Duck- 2 along road
Osprey- one along road
Roadside Hawk- one along road
Broadwinged Hawk- one along road
Gray-headed Kite- one along road
Laughing Falcon- several along road and near lodge
Collared Forest-Falcon- 2 heard near lodge
Crested Caracara- a one along road
Semiplumbeous Hawk- 2 in forest
Gray Hawk- one along road
Crested Guan- a few in forest
Great Currasow- 1 heard, others saw a few at lodge
White-throated Crake- several heard along road
Gray-breasted Crake- one heard along road
Gray-necked Wood-Rail- one seen compost
Purple Gallinule- a few seen along road
Red-billed Pigeon- several along road
Short-billed Pigeon- several at lodge
Gray-chested Dove- a few at lodge
White-tiped Dove- one along road
Ruddy Ground-Dove- several along road
Olive-throated Parakeet- several
Orange-chinned Parakeet- just a few
Great Green Macaw- 6-7 at lodge
White-crowned Parrot- several
Brown-hooded Parrot-several at lodge and feeders
Red-lored Parrot-a few near lodge
Mealy Parrot- several at lodge
Groove-billed Ani- several along road
Mottled Owl- one seen
Central American Pygmy-Owl- a few heard at lodge
Common Pauraque- one along road
Common Potoo- one heard near lodge
Gray-rumped Swift- many
Long-billed Hermit- a few at lodge
Stripe-throated Hermit- a few at lodge
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird- a few along road
Purple-crowned Fairy- one in forest
Violet-headed Hummingbird- one in garden
Violet-crowned Woodnymph- a few in forest
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- several
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- a few
Slaty-tailed Trogon- several heard in forest
Black-throated Trogon- one seen in forest
Broad-billed Motmot- a few heard
Ringed Kingfisher- a few near lodge
Green Kingfisher- a few on lagoons
Pied Puffbird- several in area
White-fronted Nunbird- 2 in back of garden
Collared Aracari- several in area
Keel-billed Toucan- several in area
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- several in area
Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several
Smoky-brown Woodpecker- one along road
Lineated Woodpecker- a few along road
Pale-billed Woodpecker- a few in forest
Cinnamon Woodpecker- 2 heard near lodge
Slaty Spinetail- several heard along road
Plain-brown Woodcreeper- one heard
Cocoa Woodcreeper- a few heard
Streak-headed Woodcreeper- several
Black-striped Woodcreeper- several
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- several
Northern Barred Woodcreeper- a few heard
Barred Antshrike- one heard along road
Western Slaty Antshrike- a few in forest
Dot-winged Antwren- a few near lodge
Chestnut-backd Antbird- a few in forest
Black-faced Anttthrush- several heard
Thicket Antpitta- one heard along road
Brown-capped Tyrannulet- several heard and a few seen at lodge
Yellow Tyrannulet- a few along road
Paltry Tyrannulet- several
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- several
Common Tody-Flycatcher- a few heard
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- one heard at lodge
Yellow-margined Flycatcher- a few heard and seen in forest
Tropical Pewee- one heard along road
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- several
Long-tailed Tyrant- a few along road
Rufous Mourner- one seen near lodge
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- a few heard
Great-crested Flycatcher- a few
Great Kiskadee- a few along road and at lodge
Boat-billed Flycatcher- two at lodge
Social Flycatcher- a few along road
White-ringed Flycatcher- one heard near lodge
TK- several
Thrushlike Schiffornis- one heard in forest
Red-capped Manakin- a few in forest
White-collared Manakin- a few along road
Black-crowned Tityra- one near lodge
Cinnamon Becard- several
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- a few heard in forest
Lesser Greenlet- many
Bay Wren- several heard
House Wren- several on road
White-breasted Wood-Wren- several in forest
Tropical Gnatcatcher- a few
Wood Thrush- several in forest
Clay-colored Robin- a few
Yellow Warbler- a few
Chestnut-sided Warbler- many
Hooded Warbler- one in forest
Northern Waterthrush- one at lagoon
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- one near Boca Tapada
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one heard at river
Bananaquit- several
White-shouldered Tanager- several in forest
Tawny-crested Tanager- a few in forest
White-lined Tanager- one along road
Summer Tanager- several
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- one heard at lodge
Passerini’s Tanager- several
Blue-gray Tanager-several
Palm Tanager- several
Golden-hooded Tanager- several
Olive-backed Euphonia- several
Green Honeycreeper- a few
Shining Honeycreeper- several
Red-legged Honeycreeper- a few at lodge
Blue Dacnis- a few in forest
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- one along road
Blue-black Grasquite- many
Variable Seedeeater- many along road
White-collared Seedeater- several along road
Thick-billed Seed-Finch- a few along road
Yelow-faced Grasquit- a few along road
Buff-throated Saltator- several
Black-headed Saltator- two along road
Slate-colored Grosbeak- three near lodge and one heard in forest
Orange-billed Sparrow- a few heard in forest
Black-faced Grosbeak- a few along road
Blue-black Grosbeak- several
Melodious Blackbird- a few along road
Red-winged Blackbird- a few along road
Bronzed Cowbird- a few along road
Baltimore Oriole- several
Scarlet-rumped Cacique- several in forest
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- a few in forest
Montezuma Oropendola- many

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16 Responses to “Exciting Birding in Northern Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge”

  1. Sounds like a great destination, Pat. The photos with the new camera are looking good!

    Steve

  2. Nice post.
    I was recently at Maquenque Lodge in the same region. It’s new, better creature comforts than I recall from Laguna del Lagarto (though it’s been over a decade since I was there), and run by absolutely wonderful folks. Lots of great habitat, though I only scratched the surface on my 1 1/2 day visit. Check it out the next time you’re heading to Boca Tapada!

  3. I have to admit I was only checking out the photos: those Tucans are superb. I think I’ve never seen a Tucan photo from the front: awesome!

  4. @Steve- Yes, that area is well worth a visit of several days and the camera it working out well!
    @Mark- Glad to hear that you stayed at Maquenque Lodge. I would love to do some surveys there sometime and look forward to any reports from visiting birders. It looks very promising.
    @Dreamfalcon- Thanks for the comments-I was very pleased with photo opportunities at Laguna del Lagarto.

  5. Thanks for the tour Pat! You’ve got an incredible list there, all would be lifers for me, having never been down there (I have to change that as soon as possible).

    You also got some super photos of the birds ad the environs. The Toucans, fabulous! I really like the Black-cheeked Woodpecker though and would love to see that Agami Heron!

  6. @Larry- Glad you liked the shots and hope to see you here sometime soon!

  7. Hi Pat

    Nice post. I visited Laguna del Lagarto a few years ago in October. Unfortunately no Great Green Macaws around at that time of year, but I had Agami and a Sungrebe within minutes of each other on the little lagoon. I also remember well the giant shrimp they served at the bar in Boca Tapada. Since I had a 4×4 and it was Saturday night, a couple of the (very attractive) barstaff talked me into driving them north to a place on the river across from Nicaragua for the Saturday night dance.

  8. Sounds like you had a great time at Laguna and vicinity! Interesting to hear that you didnt have Great Green Macaw in October. Thanks for posting that as I was under the impression that they could be seen there year round. I was more or less expecting Sungrebe because the habitat looks perfect for them but I supose that we just didnt get lucky.

  9. Hi Pat,

    I religiously read all your posts but this one had special interest for me since I had been on the Christmas count at Pangola, a little further east in the same area. Now I know I really must return and search much more diligently. It’s a big area and surely will bring some wonderful sightings if more birders get in there.

    I look forward to February’s posts.

    Paul

  10. @Paul- Good to hear form you! Hopefully we can get together for birding sometime soon. I agree that the whole Maquenque area should be birded more often. I would love to get back up there and do some point counts.

  11. Hi Pat-

    Your website/blog is really great! Away from book references and adverts for lodges on the internet, it is the first unbiased, experienced and informed disussion about CR and birding I have found anywhere.

    I have birded CR extensively(5 times), with the exception of a region which goes from Guanacaste S to the Arenal region. So my wife and I are planning a January or February, 2012 trip to Guanacaste, including Heliconias Lodge (still looking for that R-v Gr. Cuckoo!). I can’t wait, especially now after finding your review and birding experiences there. While there, we also planned to go to NP Palo Verde.

    But after reading your reviews about Laguna Del Lagarto Lodge (Agami!), i’m now wondering if it is logistically possible to go from Heliconias Lodge to L. Del Lagarto lodge? we would probably hire a driver to do it if the road between the two places connects! Mapquest does not know. Do you have any thoughts to offer on this ?

    All the best,

    John

  12. @ John- Always nice to hear from someone who enjoys birding in Costa Rica and also enjoys the blog.
    Heliconias will be great, it has such a high degree of biodiversity. I first went there some years before it made it onto the birding map and figured it had potential but still didn’t realize how good the place really is. The Ground Cuckoo could turn up anywhere on the trails but best way to see it is at an antswarm. If you find one, you might even need to stay with the swarm for hours but the cuckoo should show up.

    Unfortunately, it would be kind of a long trip to get from Heliconias to Laguna del Lagarto. It can be done, but you would have to drive over to La Fortuna, San Carlos, and then Pital. From there, you head north to Laguna del Lagarto. Off hand, I would expect the trip to take 3-4 hours.

  13. Pat-

    thanks for your comments re travel from Heleconias to Laguna Del Lagarto. 3-4 hours does not seem too bad to me. maybe we’ll work it in if possible.

    incidentally, i echo your positive review of Bosque Del Rio Tigre on the Osa. we stopped there about two years ago when we were spending time on the Osa, primarily at Lapa Rios Lodge. in the brief few hours we were there (our guide wanted to show it to us for future trips) we were fortunate to see Yellow-billed Cotinga and Uniform Crake, among other birds. Definately a great birding place.

    John
    Millbrook, New York USA

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