Last week, while winter storms were wreaking havoc in northern climes, I had the great fortune to spend a day of guiding in much warmer, snow-less weather in and around Arenal Observatory Lodge, Costa Rica. Although lower temperatures than normal and saturating morning mist were a reminder that the frigid fingers of those northern blizzards can tendril their way south to Costa Rica, we still had a pretty productive day with over 130 bird species identified.
Starting out at the Miradas de Arenal Cabins, a number of common, edge species were identified as they came to fruiting trees, best birds probably being Black-cowled Oriole and Black-headed Saltator. Foggy weather didn’t let the birds show much color but at least boosted their activity. As the mist gradually lifted and visibility increased, we drove to our main birding destination, the entrance road for Arenal National Park and Arenal Observatory Lodge. The stony entrance road cuts through pasture, guava orchards, patches of old second growth forest, crosses rivers, and eventually reaches older forest to provide a variety of habitats that can turn up a large number of bird species. It’s the type of place where fruiting trees could potentially host cotingas, where crakes may lurk in marshy grass, and where uncommon raptors might fly past. One of our first birds of the day was in the latter category although instead of quickly winging its way through our field of view, it perched in a bare tree long enough to take its picture (and some of my only shots for the day due to the inclement weather).
This medium sized Accipiter is widespread in the neotropics but always tough to see and nearly impossible to predict when and where it will show up. A most welcome addition to my year list!
Pigeons were also plentiful along the road with Band-tailed and Pale-vented being the most common. Both species occurred in flocks of 15 to 60 individuals and were feeding in fruiting trees or hanging out in tree tops.
There are a few side roads that can also be productive. On one of these, while getting close looks at a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, a male Great Curassow flew down from the trees to strut along the shoulder of the road! This was a nice surprise and a probable sign that the general area sees very little hunting pressure.
No image of the curassow but at least the toucan sat long enough for a photo.
Continuing on, we added species such as Long-tailed Tyrant, Bay Wren, and other expected birds but those were nothing compared to one of our best finds of the day, Fasciated Tiger-Heron! Always a tough bird to come across, ours was an adult that gave us perfect, close looks at the river just before the entrance to the Observatory Lodge. I regret not taking photos but it was getting a bit too rainy to risk short-circuiting my camera.
After studying the tiger-heron, we paid our $4 entrance fee to use the trails of the Observatory Lodge (open 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.) and ticked off a soggy Broad-billed Motmot perched in the rain as we drove up to the restaurant and viewing platform. The looming volcanic cone known as Volcan Arenal is what is supposed to be viewed from this point but even better for birders are the fruit feeders that attract oropendolas, orioles, and tanagers. On sunnier days, this is a perfect spot for bird photography but because the soaking rain only made mental images possible, you will just have to believe me when I say that we had eye popping views of Montezuma Oropendolas, Buff-throated Saltators, Clay-colored Thrushes, Olive-backed Euphonias, and Blue-gray, Palm, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers. Emerald Tanager also sometimes shows up at their feeders although they didn’t make an appearance while we watched.
Despite the windy and rainy weather, we were determined to make the most of our day at this birdy site and therefore walked a short loop trail near the cabins that can be good for Thicket Antpitta. There are also Porterweed bushes near there that can attract Black-crested Coquette, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and other hummingbird species of the Caribbean foothills. If our visit was any indication, though, none of these birds come out in the rain! While on other visits, I have heard and seen the antpitta fairly easily on this trail and have seen several coquettes buzzing around like insects in those same flowering bushes, we hardly saw or heard anything. As it was mid-morning, time of day may have also been a factor but I suspect that the weather was the main culprit.
Upon exiting the trail and getting looks at Hepatic Tanager (fairly common here), it was time for lunch and I am pleased to say that their restaurant has improved! It’s still over-priced but the service was good and the food drastically better than any of my past gastronomic experiences at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.
By the end of our meal, amazingly, it had stopped raining and we could even see the top of the volcano! After a quick check of the flowering bushes and only espying Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and one or two Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, it was off to the Waterfall Trail for middle elevation forest birding. Perhaps because the rain had just ended, bird activity was pretty good and constant with several mixed flocks making their way through the forest. Golden-crowned Warblers and Slaty-capped Flycatchers seemed to lead the way while Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, Olive Tanagers, and the occasional Spotted Barbtail followed. In the canopy, Russet Antshrikes, and Black and Yellow and other tanager species rustled the vegetation while Montezuma Oropendolas displayed. A quick walk down to the waterfall didn’t turn up hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet or Green-fronted Lancebill but both should be possible there (as well as Sunbittern).
We didn’t hit any antswarms inside the forest but got lucky anyways in seeing a lone Spotted Antbird. Outside the forest, before leaving the grounds of the Observatory Lodge, we made one last stop at the “Casona” to check fruiting trees and were rewarded with close looks at Short-billed Pigeons, White-crowned Parrots, Emerald Tanager (!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia. No luck with cotingas but I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned up in that area (Lovely Cotinga is occasionally seen around Arenal Observatory Lodge).
After our visit to the lodge and getting another look at the tiger-heron, we birded along the road that leads to the Arenal Sky Tram and Neopenthes. A few spots along this road pass near marshes that probably hold some rare, skulking waterbirds. We didn’t see these of course (because they were skulking) but did get good looks at Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Near there, along the roadside, we also got our only antswarm of the day. As luck would have it, the ants were moving through an open area and therefore no antbirds were present but we still got to see a bunch of thrushes that were taking advantage of the easy pickings. Clay-coloreds were the most common but there were also one or two Swainson’s, and several White-throated.
By this time, the day was coming to an end and birds were heading to their roosts for the night. As Red-lored Parrots flew past, we were treated to a beautiful view of the volcano lit up by the red rays of the setting sun; a memorable way to finish a great day of birding around Arenal.
Here is a list of all birds seen or heard from our day:
|Laughing Falcon heard
|White-throated Crake heard
|Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
|Rufoustailed Jacamar heard
|Great Antshrike heard
|Yellow Tyrannulet heard
|Bright-rumped Attila heard
|Dusky-capped Flycatcher heard
|Northern Roughwinged Swallow
|Southern Roughwinged Swallow
|Band-backed Wren heard
|Black-throated Wren heard
|White-breasted Wood-Wren heard
|Long-billed Gnatwren heard
|Wood Thrush heard
|Black and white Warbler
|Gray-crowned Yellowthroat heard
|Golden-browed Chlorophonia heard
|Blue-black Grosbeak heard