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Trip Report from a Recent Birding Trip to Laguna del Lagarto (part uno)

Laguna del Lagarto is a veteran eco-lodge found up near the Nicaraguan border. The detour one has to take to get there keeps most bird tour groups and many a visiting birder from making it to the forests around the little settlement known as Boca Tapada. With most of the species being readily found around the much more strategically located Sarapiqui area, it’s easy to see why Laguna gets written off pretty quickly once the trip planning process kicks into gear.

It’s not that the birding doesn’t sound promising. It’s just that most people find it hard to justify adding a site into an itinerary that requires venturing a couple hours off the common Costa Rican birding route. For birders who have already done the typical circuit and those of us who reside in Costa Rica, it’s a lot more enticing though and I always jump at the chance to visit the rainforests of the San Carlos region. Those little birded forests are essentially the draw of Laguna del Lagarto and I know that at least I always wish I could spend more time up that way simply because there’s a lot more forest than the Sarapiqui area. Don’t get me wrong, La Selva and surroundings is great for birding and offers a bunch of forested sites but the fact that there’s more forest around Laguna del Lagarto along with its proximity to the massive Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua gives it a heck of a lot of potential.

Add that to rather few birders visiting the area and you realize that just about anything could turn up! Ok, so we didn’t get any super rare species on the trip there this past weekend but two to three days isn’t nearly enough time to check out the area to my satisfaction. Effective bird surveys of lowland rainforest require counts that begin before dawn way back in the forest. You need people to survey the lagoons and forest edge at the same time, and it would be great to have a team using scopes to scan forested hillsides as well as someone to check out other forested sites in the vicinity. A Christmas count might do the job as long as there were enough experienced participants and even then, it’s only one sampling event out of an entire year.

The point I’m trying to get at is that although we didn’t connect with rarities like Red-throated Caracara, Great Jacamar, either of the two large eagles, or Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, I still think that all of those could show up at or near Laguna del Lagarto.  Even if you don’t get lucky and find any of those rarities, you can still expect high quality birding like we experienced last weekend. The birding on the way to the lodge isn’t all that shabby either and that’s how I will officially start this trip report:

7:30 A.M., just outside of Pital on September 7th, 2012

Susan and I would have been there earlier but we couldn’t help but make stops at Cinchona and check out the La Tabla-Pital road. Dawn at Cinchona yielded vocalizations of Nightingale Wren, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and a few others. The extensive fields and pastures that flank the La Tabla road aren’t exactly good for bird diversity so don’t waste your time with it. Maximize birding time by taking the Aguas Zarcas-Pital road instead. The most interesting thing birdwise was the large number of swallows that gave us close looks as they foraged close to the ground (Cliff, Barn, and Bank in that order of abundance).

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Migrant swallows on a wire in Costa Rica.

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This ironic sign says that this farm prohibits hunting and protects animals and forest. With that sterile, huge pineapple field behind it, there must be invisible parentheses that enclose “except when we can grow pineapples”. Please do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica until they are grown in a sustainable manner because they replace all vegetation in huge areas and are doused with showers of pesticides.

Once we reached Pital, some forest patches began to appear and with them came expected lowland forest birds like Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracari, Red-lored Parrots, White-crowned Parrots, Bright-rumped, and a surpise Cinnamon Woodpecker out in the open!

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This beautiful woodpecker is fairly common in forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills but is usually much more difficult to see than this one.

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After it flew off, a pair of Olive-throated Parakeets posed for pictures.

The further north we drove along that bumpy road, the more forest we saw.

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Some of it was close.

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But most of it was distant. It’s hard to tell from this image but there was intact, primary forest visible on both sides of the road once we got halfway to Laguna from Pital.

Although scanning the distant forest canopy didn’t turn up anything exciting, we had plenty of birds closer to the road including Slaty Spinetail, a heard only Great Antshrike, Gray-capped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Gray-headed Cachalacas, Laughing and Bat Falcons, and 2 Snowy Cotingas (!). No luck at the few lagoons we saw but they could certainly harbor small kingfishers, Agami Heron, and other uncommon species.

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Promising lagoon along road.

10:00 A.M.

We reached the lodge with more than 80 species under our belts and after a quick check into the rooms, the birding continued on the restaurant balcony. It turns out that the feeders are slow at this time of the year but we still got close looks at

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comical Montezuma Oropendolas

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jewel-like Green Honeycreeper

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Red-legged and Shining Honeycreepers. The bird on the right is a female Shining while the other one is a male Red-legged in basic plumage.

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Black-cheeked Woodpecker trying to bring vogueing back into style by striking a pose…

We got our first group of migrating Mississippi Kites around this time with a flock of about 150 birds. On Sunday, I saw a distant massive kettle of at least 1,500 kites! As is typical of lowland rainforest sites, the more we looked the more we saw. A migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher perched on a distant snag. Short-billed Pigeons flew into nearby trees along with two species of tityras. Scaly-breasted Hummingbird foraged in nearby Heliconias. Once the group got together, we ventured into the forest and quickly encountered a bunch of birds feasting on a fruiting Melastome. Bright-rumped Attila, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Blue Dacnis, Plain-colored Tanager, and our first of many White-vented Euphonias popped into view along with a bold Slate-colored Grosbeak.

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Slaty-tailed Trogon.

As we walked down the trail, a pair of Great Curassows made an appearance and several Crested Guans were seen shortly thereafter. Heading back outside the forest and into the nearby gardens turned up Lesser Greenlets, Shining Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and a distant but scopeable trio of Pied Puffbirds. The nunbirds didn’t show but we were entertained nonetheless. The lavender crown of a flowering Dypterix panamensis or “Almendra” was buzzed by at least a dozen hummingbirds. It was quite the challenge to identify them so high in the air and who knows what we missed but we did manage to find Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, Scaly-breasted, and Violet-headed along with Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As Red-lored and a few Mealy Parrots flew to their roosts on rapid, shallow wing beats, we finally heard the telltale screams of macaws. Laguna del Lagarto is kind of famous for Great Green Macws but we hadn’t seen any yet. Where were they? The lodge’s local guide, Didier, told us that they were in Nicaragua or just somewhere else at this time of the year but  a few could still show up or fly past. The screeching macaws flew into view in the misty distance before settling into an isolated tree. The scope was needed to see their colors but we saw red, blue, and yellow instead of green. They were Scarlets!

I had been hearing that more Scarlet Macaws were being sighted in those northern forests. It’s a welcome and wonderful sign to see these majestic birds coming back after being pretty much extirpated from the Caribbean slope. While I was eying their antics through my Swarovski, three other macaws suddenly flew past and yes, those were green!  Unfortunately no one else got onto to them so all I could do was hope that they would do another flyby in the morning or the following evening.

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Sadly, the only close Great Green Macaws we had were the ones on signs at the lodge.

We ended the day with around 90 species identified during just one afternoon of birding at the lodge while Susan and I had racked up more than 150 species for that entire day. Dinner was excellent and sleep even better but not before a search for nightbirds turned up a brief flyover of what was probably a Mottled Owl.

Stay tuned for part dos!

To see more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica, see Costa Rica Living and Birding at http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress

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