Costa Rica Birds 2016 Trip Report
By Mark Thomas on May 16, 2016
The subtitle of the April Costa Rica Birds photo safari is Resplendent Quetzals & Other Neotropical Delights. That certainly describes the contents of our two weeks of shooting an endless assortment of subjects—poison dart frogs, tree frogs, hummingbirds, bats, reptiles, sunbitterns and an amazing variety of birds, including those resplendent quetzals. We had great photography, along with some special luck, for a wonderful trip. Below are some of the details. Enjoy!
All—but one—of the tour participants made it to our San Jose hotel in time for our first group meeting and dinner. The final member of the group arrived later that night. Everyone was now ready for our trip to begin.
The day began early when a local rooster crowed from about 3:30 AM onward. Following breakfast, we loaded our gear in our Toyota Coaster and were on the road by about 8:20 AM. Traffic was light so we made really good time. En route, we stopped to pick up some snacks—this would be the hottest and most humid part of the trip and I recommended that folks grab a Gatorade or two. We arrived at our first lodge around 10:30 AM.
I took everyone on an orientation walk of the property. Our great luck started right away. We had barely made it out of the lobby of the lodge when we came across a very nice female emerald basilisk lizard. A few folks had their cameras ready and began shooting. Others went back for theirs—including me. We eventually made it to the bottom of the walk and found a much smaller juvenile emerald basilisk. A few steps later, at a tree stump at the beginning of the trail, was a very, very nice adult male emerald basilisk. He was in great shape and even had some light blue on his face. He posed for hours.
After showing everyone where we would be shooting red-eyed tree frogs later that night we returned to where we left the male emerald basilisk. One of the lodge staff found us there with news of a snake by the dining room. Our luck was continuing. We raced back. The snake turned out to be a beautiful, 5-foot-long green parrot snake. This is an arboreal snake and is brilliant green above and yellowish-green below. It is non-venomous. The staff member was able to move the snake a bit with a stick and we were able to get some really nice shots.
After lunch, as some of us were standing outside our rooms talking about our plans, a beautiful keel-billed toucan landed right at eye level in a tree totally in the open about ten yards away. None of us had a camera in hand! He stayed for only about 15 or 30 seconds before flying off with a second bird. Nobody got a shot.
We were at our Caribbean lowlands lodge. Here we could expect to photograph two varieties of poison dart frog, the diminutive strawberry and the larger green and black dart frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, leafcutter ants, giant green iguanas, emerald basilisk lizards and a variety of birds. One thing I had noticed when entering the grounds was that the normal buzz of strawberry poison dart frogs was barely noticeable. But cicadas were buzzing loudly. Poison dart frogs are active during the daytime and you normally could hear the strawberry poison dart frogs vocalizing all day from dawn until dusk. But by about noon, we didn’t hear them anymore. It had been and continued to be very dry in Costa Rica. That, along with the hot sunshine, must have sent the frogs into the leaf litter to keep cool. What we needed was some rain.
We spent the rest of the afternoon photographing the lizards and the small handful of birds that came to the lodge feeder. Some of our group were very lucky and got really nice shots of the chestnut-mandibled toucan on a beautiful branch near the feeder. A male and female red-legged honeycreeper made an appearance, as did a Montezuma oropendola. As we walked the property in search of subjects for our cameras, one of the staff told us where we could find some poison dart frogs. He had just watered his garden and several frogs became active. We followed and were rewarded with well over a dozen green and black poison dart frogs of all sizes, from pinkie fingernail size to nearly 2-inch-long adults. We also had good photo opportunities with four collared araçaris. As would be the recurring theme on this trip, we just kept having great luck!
Following dinner, we looked for red-eyed tree frogs. There were a couple, but none were in good locations to shoot. And, basically, they seemed extremely lethargic, going to sleep by 8 PM. We blamed it on the dry conditions. What we needed was some rain. At about 9 PM, I started to hear the sounds of large raindrops hitting the metal roof of my room. It got louder and louder and, luckily, it lasted all night.
We were up around 5 AM. I could hear a light rain falling. That was perfect. It was exactly what I was hoping for to help make the frogs more active. And it worked. You could hear many strawberry poison frogs calling to each other. And that lasted the entire day.
We started out again with excellent photography of our adult male emerald basilisk lizard. We divided our time between the bird feeding stations and looking for poison dart frogs to photograph. We had glimpses of the pale-billed woodpecker, but he was not in a good spot for photography this time. Everyone was shooting on their own during the day today in order to concentrate on the subjects each wanted the most. Some wanted the frogs, while others waited for birds.
On the way to dinner, I scoped out the pond and saw several red-eyed tree frogs—our hunch about the earlier rain was right. The tree frogs were definitely out and about, looking for mates and protecting their turf, or branch, from other frogs looking for a mate. After dinner we were able to capture many nice red-eyed tree frog photos, including a pair of mating frogs. While we were there, we had another species of green tree frog by the pool each night. They are about the size of the red-eyed tree frogs, but with no red eyes. We also photographed a giant frog known locally as a “chicken-eating” frog due to its size, similar to our bullfrog. We wrapped it up for the night at 9 PM. All were pretty wiped out. But everyone was thrilled with the pictures we were getting.
After breakfast, we headed to a nearby property that was set up with several fruit feeding stations for attracting birds. We arrived to see great green macaws in the trees, but they weren’t within camera range. Throughout the morning, the feeders were visited by many different species, including the golden-hooded tanager, Baltimore oriole, blue-gray tanager, green honeycreepers and red-legged honeycreepers, crimson-collared tanager, Passerini’s tanager and many others. We were also treated to a variety of hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeders. Wilson, our driver, found a large rhinoceros beetle. We fed it bananas and papayas while we set up to photograph. The beetle was released—unharmed and well-nourished—when we were finished shooting.
The afternoon was spent back at the lodge property for a last chance to photograph the poison dart frogs. Once we left the lowlands, we would not see them again. One of our group spent time by the river where she saw and photographed a striated tiger heron. Everyone brought their camera gear to dinner so they could immediately begin shooting the red-eyed tree frogs afterward. As expected, the frogs were very animated again tonight due to the light rain during the day.
After breakfast, we loaded our luggage into the bus, but kept our camera gear handy. We headed away from our lowland lodge to a research station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Here, students from around the world come to study the rain forest and its inhabitants. True to form, our good luck continued. On the roadway leading to the OTS station, we came across a troop of howler monkeys up in the trees. The group included at least on large male and one mother with a youngster clinging to her back. The shooting was challenging, but by spending time with the troop as it moved through the trees, we were rewarded with a few very nice shots.
We continued on to the research station where we met our guide. We started down one particular trail. Our guide pointed out a two-toed sloth sleeping high in a tree. It was interesting to see, but not a great photo opportunity. Further down the trail we noticed some small lizards darting around in the leaf litter. They were juvenile Central American ameivas. The nice thing about them is that they have brilliant blue tails when young. They were in constant motion looking for insects. Having grown up in South Florida, I have a particular fondness for lizards, snakes, frogs and other herps. So I hung back while the rest of the group moved on with the guide. Eventually, one of the lizards took up a good position for a photograph.
I caught up with the group just in time to see what they were looking at. Our guide had found a small colony of white tent bats. Tent bats roost during the day beneath the large, broad leaves of Heliconia
or banana plants. They actually bite the leaves along the stem so that they droop down to form a tent. They then cling to the stem protected by their leafy tent. I had not seen these on my past trip to Costa Rica, so it was another bonanza species. We took extra time with them as to not disturb their slumber.
We made our way back up the trail in order to cross the river to another trail. At the far end of the swinging bridge, there was a tamandua (anteater) sleeping in the crook of a large tree. Unfortunately, his face was hidden from view. But in another tree a bit closer to the bridge we found a rufous motmot, a beautiful bird with a long colorful tail. I snapped a couple of quick shots. A few members of our group stayed there longer and the motmot actually came out to a better perch. They got excellent shots.
Another rain forest creature that had escaped my camera in the past was the three-toed sloth. That was about to change. As we got to the other side of the river and started on the trail, we came to a tree where a three-toed sloth was sleeping. He was in a great spot and there was nothing in front. We all set up our cameras and waited for him to look our way. After a few minutes, he obliged. Some of our group photographed a chestnut-mandibled toucan in another tree, while others followed a collared peccary with her baby.
The morning went by quickly and, after lunch, we headed to our next lodge, located in the foothills. The change in elevation caused a change in the wildlife we would see. No more poison dart frogs. But other interesting subjects awaited us!
After we arrived at our foothills lodge at about 4 PM, I scrambled to unpack all the gear we would need to photograph bats in the forest. I hauled the gear up the forest trail and had everything set up just in time to race down the trail for dinner at 6 PM. Immediately after dinner, everyone got the recommended gear and followed me up the trail to where our set-up was waiting. Everyone got positioned. We fired a few test shots. And then we waited. Our flashes fired only a handful of times that first night. The bat activity was slow, possibly due to the dry conditions. But Wilson, our driver, came through again when he found a red-legged tarantula in front of its burrow. Those with macro gear had a field day. Besides the tarantula, there were many other spiders and whip scorpions to photograph. Giant click beetles with two glowing “headlights” and a bright glowing abdomen were attracted to the flashing green lights on the backs of our strobes. I think they believed they were females or rival males. We wrapped up around 9 PM. We actually got one or two decent bat images and we would try again tomorrow night.
I woke up to the sound of a keel-billed toucan somewhere in the trees, but was not able to spot him. The feeders around the lodge were only being visited occasionally by local birds. We were, however, given permission to go onto the neighboring property where Montezuma oropendolas were nesting in a cecropia tree. They nest in colonies, each pair building a hanging basket nest.
After lunch, I set up the multi-flash gear to capture hummingbirds in flight. Group members rotated through, two at a time, so everyone got several opportunities to shoot. Over the course of the afternoon, several different hummingbirds visited our feeder and flower, including white-necked jacobin, green hermit (male and female), violet sabrewing, rufous-tailed hummingbird and green-breasted mango hummingbird. Another hummingbird we saw, though it did not visit our particular flower, was the tiny snow cap hummingbird. The green thorntail was also a visitor to the flowers around the lodge. We shot the hummingbirds until about 5 PM, when I took all of the gear back up the mountain to prepare for our bat shoot. While it didn’t really rain, there was a lot more moisture in the air and big clouds were rolling in over the neighboring mountains. I had all the bat gear set up just in time for dinner.
After dinner, we all eagerly headed up to our bat location. Everyone got set up quickly as now all knew the drill. It was definitely damper, and the bats seemed to really come to life. It wasn’t long before the bats began tripping the strobes. Of course not all flashes are great shots. But every once in a while, BINGO! The bats flew very close to us. We could easily hear their fluttering wings and sometimes feel the breeze as they flew by. The bats were definitely active tonight and we got many exposed frames. In the meantime, the other creatures of the night were out and about. We now had become adept at locating tarantulas and had about half a dozen burrows located. So our macro shooters had a great time while waiting for the bats. We called it quits about 10 PM. That made for a long day. But everyone said it was a good kind of tired.
This morning, since the bird activity at the lodge was a bit slow, I had something else planned for the group. So, after breakfast, we drove to a place along a nearby river about 30 minutes away that Wilson and I knew about. We had both seen sunbitterns here in the past. The sunbittern is a medium-sized bird that spends its day walking on the rocks at the edge of the river catching insects, fish and tadpoles to eat. They aren’t all that impressive at first sight—until you see them in the air. When they fly, their unimpressive plumage ignites into two giant eye spots on top of their wings. The shot you want of a sunbittern is either when it is flying or when it is displaying to ward off a predator.
We walked the dirt road that paralleled the river looking for sunbitterns. There are only a couple of really good locations to photograph them in flight. You need an area where the rocks are far enough apart so they are forced to fly between them. You also need to be standing above the birds, shooting down on them, because most of their flight is actually soaring with their wings outstretched. If you are at eye level to them, the beautiful patterns on their wings aren’t visible. And you also want sun hitting them. We walked down the road for about 20 minutes. Neither Wilson nor I had ever seen the birds past this spot. So we worked our way back upstream to where we had parked and walked downstream again. When we were about halfway down, Wilson spotted a pair of sunbitterns walking downriver. We all scrambled upriver to see them. The birds were doing exactly what we wanted. The pair was slowly working their way downriver about 20 yards apart from each other. They constantly called out to each other. When I saw where they were headed I gathered everyone and said, “We need to get ahead of them.” We all rushed down to the prime shooting spot. It was at an unobstructed view of the river, in the sun, with no rocks for the birds to hop on. They would fly when they got here for sure! We could hear the birds calling to each other and it was obvious they were still headed our way. The first sunbittern came into view as it hopped up on a rock on the other side of the river. To get to the next rock, he’d have to fly. So everyone focused on him and waited. Then he flew right through the sunny spot—and everyone got shots of him in flight. His mate was not far behind him, so I told everyone to be ready for her. A few minutes later, she showed up and did the exact same thing. And the entire group got the shot. Everyone got not just one chance at a sunbittern in flight, but two perfect opportunities. Once again, luck was following us around.
We got back to the lodge a bit before lunch and I got the multi-flash gear set up so that everyone could shoot immediately after lunch. We spent the afternoon shooting the hummingbirds until about 5 PM and then I brought all of the flash equipment up into the forest for our bat shoot. After dinner, everyone hustled up the hill and got set up. It was another very damp evening. As it got darker, the bats came out in good numbers. We had many flashes fire throughout the evening. We were definitely capturing at least two distinct species of bat. The orange nectar bat is usually the more common of the two, but we were also getting about an equal number of long-tongued bats. In the meantime, several of us went looking for other creatures of the night, such as tarantulas, whip scorpions, long-legged crickets, and anything else that we could use our macro gear with. There was no shortage of subjects. A couple of us stayed until 11 PM. After breaking down all of the flash gear and bringing it down to the lodge, I went back up and just sat in the forest for a while listening to the bats. An armadillo and a mouse passed by.
This was our last day at our foothills lodge. And everyone wanted to go back to the sunbitterns again. So, after breakfast, we loaded into the bus to head for our sunbittern spot. But today, we weren’t as fortunate. When we did finally find sunbitterns, they remained aloof and mostly hung out in the shade while hunting for food. And everyone in the group realized just how very fortunate we had been the day before.
After lunch, we had longer rotations at the hummingbird set-ups hoping to capture confrontations as several hummingbirds tried to feed simultaneously. Most everybody got some really nice interaction shots. For our bat photography tonight I brought an extra strobe to try some different lighting. We now had a pretty good idea of where the bats where coming from and where they were headed, so I adjusted things to try to get more somewhat head-on angles. I had told everyone during dinner that we would only be shooting bats until about 9 PM because I needed time to break down all the gear and pack it away since we were leaving the lodge in the morning. At 9 PM most of the group called it a night. But we had been getting a lot of bat action. So I told the remaining two people that we would shoot for another 15 minutes or so. Three hours later, at midnight, we finally wrapped up shooting. The activity was just too good to leave. I think the best bat shots of the trip came from that night.
Today we left the foothills to head to the highlands—the final leg of our Costa Rican adventure. We spent several hours climbing upward on a winding mountain road to nearly 10,000 feet before heading down into the valley where our lodge was located. We ended up at around 7,500 feet. After lunch I took everyone on a short trail through the woods to where a very active quetzal nest has been for the past 12 years—only to find it unoccupied this year. For whatever reason, the quetzals had not chosen this spot this year. But there were other birds to photograph here, including a variety of hummingbirds, acorn woodpeckers, flame-colored tanagers, black-cowled orioles and others.
But our real goal was resplendent quetzals. There was another area about 45 minutes away where quetzals also nest. We already had arrangements to photograph there on our third day in the valley. But as soon as we realized there were no quetzals nesting near our lodge, Wilson once again jumped into action and tried to get us into our alternate location earlier. This alternative spot has several active nests located on various tracts of private property where the landowners work with the local guides to keep them abreast of quetzal activity. But in order to not overstress the nesting birds, they limit the number of people they take to the nests each day. And they were booked pretty solid until our scheduled visit two days later. But, with persistence, Wilson managed to get us another full day of shooting. In the meantime, we would shoot the other birds on the property and wait the day and a half until we could visit the active quetzal nests.
After breakfast, I walked with one of the participants through the woods to the nest that had been active last year. We were soon joined by another member our group. As we stood talking, a redstart appeared and we all got images of it. Then I heard the call of the male quetzal. At first I thought that it might be someone using a bird call from their phone. But no one else was around. We pinpointed where the call was coming from, but could not see the bird. As beautifully colored as they are, quetzals are often nearly invisible when they are in the forest. Then, all of a sudden, it flew from one tree to another. We couldn’t see exactly where it landed. A few minutes later, it flew again. It flew out of sight, but it called one more time. We tried to follow the call up the hill. But that was the last time we saw him. At least they hadn’t given up totally on that area. Maybe they would still nest there later in the season.
We continued shooting around the lodge property for the rest of the day. We had been hearing the story of one quetzal nest at our alternate site that had two nearly grown chicks in it. Both parents were regularly flying in with mini avocados along with the occasional insect to feed the chicks. We knew that if the chicks fledged, the parents would not be coming back to the nest. We got word at dinner that one of the chicks had fledged, but that the other one was still in the nest. We just needed it to stay in the nest one more day…!
After a quick breakfast, everyone was eager to head for our alternate quetzal site. When we got there, we found out that the one chick was still in the nest. However, it appeared that only the female was coming back to feed it while the male had followed the other chick after it fledged to take care of it. We photographed at this nest throughout the morning. Only the female returned to feed the remaining chick. We ordered box lunches from the nearby lodge so we could maximize our time with the quetzals. Our local guide told me about another nest where the female had disappeared and only the male quetzal was coming in to feed the chicks. The only issue with this nest is that the male had lost its two long tail coverts during a fight earlier in the season and they hadn’t fully grown back yet. He showed me a picture that was shot the day before. It was a beautiful bird and the nest was wide open. Even though the tail wasn’t at its maximum length, it was still long and beautiful and I decided that we needed to go to that nest. We all made our way back to the 4WD vehicles that brought us and were driven back up the road to where our bus was parked. We climbed in, stopped briefly to pick up our box lunches, and then headed immediately to the second nest.
This shooting situation was great. The nest was in a dead tree that was wide open. Nothing was near it on any side. We would easily be able to see the quetzal as it made its way in; they typically will perch a bit away from the nest to assess for danger before bringing food to the nest. We didn’t have to wait long before we saw the male in a tree nearby with a mini avocado in its mouth. It sat there long enough for us to get some nice perching shots before flying to the nest, where it clung to the outside for a handful of seconds before finally going inside. After feeding the chicks, it popped its head out for a few seconds and then it flew out of the nest. Now that we knew its pattern, we could all attempt to get that very desirable quetzal flight shot. It came back a couple of more times while we were there, bringing avocados each time. Nearly everyone got nice flight shots either as it flew toward or away from the nest. Thanks to Wilson, we had a very good day photographing both the female and the male quetzals coming to their nests to feed their young.
This morning we had a major decision to make. It would be our last chance with quetzals and from here we would be heading back to San Jose. There was a third nest that the locals knew about where the chicks had hatched out only about three days earlier. Both the male and female parents were reportedly bringing food back to the chicks. And this male had both long tail coverts intact. But the nest was not in the open and there were only a few places where the birds could perch that would work for pictures. So the decision: either return to the male we had yesterday at the open nest site, or try the new nest in hopes of photographing the male with the long feathers. We also had the third option to shoot at the new nest until about 8:30 AM and then move to the nest from yesterday. But after 8:30, it would be too late to move.
We decided to shoot at the new nest and hope for the male to show and then reassess at 8:30. In the time that we were at the new nest, the female came in once or twice, but not the male. At 8:30, the majority of the group decided they would like to risk it and stay there for a shot at the new male quetzal. We stayed until lunchtime. The female came in a couple of more times. Once she had an avocado and once she came in with a large green katydid. But the male never came near the nest. He was seen in the trees nearby, but simply did not come within camera range. At noon, we had to call it a day and head to the lodge for lunch. The lodge had a few hummingbird feeders set up near the dining room. They were very busy with fiery-throated hummingbirds and one or two other varieties.
After lunch, we hit the road on our way back to San Jose. Wilson told us a bit of the history of Costa Rica along the way. We arrived back at our hotel by midafternoon and had our farewell dinner at 7 PM. After that, everyone retired to their rooms and prepared for their departures to the airport the next morning.
It was a wonderful trip and everyone came away with some really nice images. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip!
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