Costa Rica is like a mini continent. Seriously, head to the northwest and magpie-jays call from dry, dusty lanes. Drive a couple hours to the south and you hit humid forest right after the Tarcoles River and where Scarlet Macaws start to screech and thickets echo with the loud voices of endemic Riverside Wrens. Take a turn into the mountains and the weather cools down while the endemic factor heats up. Bird those cloud forests and you might see quetzals, Flame-throated Warblers, and lots of other local goodies. Keep going over that central geological spine and we descend onto the wet Caribbean slope, first through more cloud forest, then through mossy foothill rainforest, and finally into the Caribbean lowlands. That last lowland area harbors the highest diversity in the country. Fewer endemics, but the forests and wetlands make up for it with 400 something species including Great Green Macaw, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Ocellated Nunbird, and several other classic neotropical birds.
The birding is always good but it’s always better when you can work the binos in quality forest. Sadly, since it’s all too easy to fell trees in flat, lowland areas, large areas of mature lowland rainforest can be hard to come by. Most visitors to Costa Rica get their fill at or near La Selva and the birding around there is wonderful, and perhaps it’s not right to compare it with other sites, but my favorite area for lowland birding lies much further south. Once you pass Siquirres, there’s more lowland forest in the house. Most of it is in hilly areas with little access, but a lot of it can be birded right from a hotel and roads south of Limon. Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common, there are lots of toucans and parrots, Snowy Cotinga isn’t too hard to come by, and protected areas have Great Curassow, and so on, and so on.
The curassow gets downright tame in many protected areas of Costa Rica.
Even so, the best areas are still the ones with the least accessible rainforest because there tends to be less impact and more connection to the major forests of the Amistad International Park. One of those “best areas” is the Hitoy Cerere Reserve. Located on the other side of the Valle de la Estrella, Hitoy backs up to the Amistad Park and is therefore connected to rainforests that stretch into Panama to the south and reach Pacuare in the north. There’s more than enough forest for all sorts of species that have become uncommon elsewhere and there’s a fair chance that Harpy Eagles still hunt in the remote corners. Although there weren’t any large eagles for us during a recent two day trip, quality birding was still the rule of birding law.
Hoping to see a cotinga or other canopy species, our inaugural stop was at a forested hillside a kilometer or two before the reserve. This ersthwile canopy tower was a nice place to start the morning and the birds came fast and furious. Blue Ground-Doves were especially common and called while various tanagers and flycatchers moved through the trees, and wrens and antbirds sang from the undergrowth. No cotingas, nor anything rare but we probably identified 60 species or more in half an hour.
At the reserve, the staff were friendly, let us in before the official opening time of of 8 am, and showed us the trails. Although I hadn’t been to Hitoy since 2001, the trails were pretty much the same; one loop through second growth and mature forest, and another, less maintained trail that penetrated wilder parts of the forest. We did both and the birding was pretty darn good.
After walking up the main trail and reaching good forest, it wasn’t long before we were stopped in our tracks by a wall of good birds. While listening for Black-crowned Antpitta, a Great Jacamar suddenly called right next to us. Almost before we could register the importance of the call, a flash of rufous and green materialized into one perched right in front of us!
Great Jacamar is pretty rare in Costa Rica because it needs lot of mature, lowland rainforest.
It called again and again and refused to leave until we walked away from it!
A major year bird and country tick for the others in our group. While the jacamar called like a raptor and a cat (seriously, this is what it does), a Scaly-breasted Wren sang very close and let us watch it. This was another quick tick for one in our group, and a species that is usually tough to see. While this was going on, Purple-throated Fruitcrows called from the canopy and oropendolas rushed through the trees. Somewhere in there, we were also watching a small flock of antwrens including the uncommon for Costa Rica, White-flanked.
When we finally decided to move forward, the call of a dove caught my attention. Another careful listen and yep, I was sure it was a Violaceous Quail-Dove! We crept up to the bird and searched the thick vegetation but much to our frustration, the bird was out of sight and never came closer. I guess you can’t see them all but it would have been nice to lay eyes on this widespread yet perpetually rare dove. I would have especially loved a picture of it since it is one of the last species missing from the field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama that I work on.
Although we missed laying eyes on the dove, the next encounter made up for it in the form of a Black-crowned Antpitta. The gnatpitta chuckled from the undergrowth and finally gave great looks for all- major lifer for everyone but me but I was still more than happy to watch that tough species!
A blurry yet identifiable gnatpitta.
After the antpitta, we continued on the trail until I decided that the snake-hiding undergrowth just wasn’t worth the risk. Back on the small loop trail, it was mid-morning and quiet as expected but we still had fun with Spotted Antbird, and two woodcreeper species at a rather lackluster antswarm, calling Red-capped Manakin, and a few other understory birds. Back out in front of the station, we were amazed to hear another Great Jacamar and happy to see that the participants of a biology course taught by Oscar Ramirez were watching it.
This was followed by siesta time for us and the birds. Once we became reactivated, we enjoyed a few big kettles of Swainson’s Hawks and a quick flyover of a target male Snowy Cotinga.
Really happy to get this, one of us needed it as a lifer. The dove-live bird even stayed for scope views.
After the cotinga, we continued down the entrance road with the hopes of finding Sulphur-rumped Tanager. On the way, one stop produced an immediate response from and excellent looks at Central American Pygmy-Owl while small birds mobbed it.
This cool bird was right in our faces.
With the owl in the bag, I decided to stop at a promising looking patch of forest where Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant was calling. My idea was that if that species was present, maybe other forest birds were likewise possible. This proved to be correct when I heard the call of Sulphur-rumped Tanager! We glimpsed the bird as it flew just over the canopy and walked down the road, fingers crossed that it had stopped within view. Luck was still with us that day because it had stopped in a tree top just down the road and stayed long enough for scope views to be had by all. It’s not the brightest of tanagers but through the scope, we could see the white tuft at the shoulder, the black bill, and the distinctive shape. Eventually, it also flipped around enough for us to glimpse the pale yellow rump (not as obvious a field mark as you might think). I was also pleased that its call was recognizable because recordings of chip notes often sound different to me than the real thing. The recording I had listened to reminded me of a Black and Yellow Tanager, and sure enough, that is what I heard in the field.
That last main target rounded out an excellent day of birding. We probably had 130 or so species total, and none of those were waterbirds. The following morning, we came back with hopes for the quail-dove but no luck there, nor did we have the jacamar again. We did hear the antpitta though, and saw a few other birds before moving on.
Getting to Hitoy Cerere: In common with many sites nowadays, this turned out to be much easier than what I remembered. The lack of signs at key spots means that you still need to know where to turn but the road wasn’t that bad. Overall, it was similar to conditions on the road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and could be done with a two wheel drive. Keep in mind, that this could easily change with heavy rains but it should still be easy with four wheel drive.
So, if coming from Limon or Cahuita, follow the road to Pandora (this is at a prominent turn with a gas station on the corner).
At one point, you can go straight or take a right and cross a bridge over a small river. Just go straight.
Eventually, go through bananas, and watch for a sign to Hitoy. Take a left at the sign (it has an arrow pointing that way).
G to a T and take a right (another sign to Hitoy there).
Drive 4.8 kilometers to a fork and bear left (no sign there).
Drive 1.6 kilometers and take a left at the fork (still no sign).
Drive 3.6 kilometers on to the reserve (signs and buildings!).
The drive takes about one hour from Cahuita without birding en route and is around 36 kilometers (from the Cahuita area). There is a $8 entrance fee.