Costa Rica Birds 2018 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on May 21, 2018

Costa Rica, with its diversity of habitats and wildlife, is one of my very favorite photo destinations. And this year did not disappoint. After a quick orientation talk, it is on to our welcome dinner where I am able to answer any remaining questions regarding the journey ahead. There is palpable excitement as everyone retires for the evening.

Early the next morning we are met by Wilson, our driver and local guide. I have worked with Wilson since this tour first began several years ago. Besides being a knowledgeable guide and exceptional driver, Wilson also shares a love of the wildlife and frequently finds subjects for our cameras. We load all of our luggage and photo gear into the spacious air-conditioned Coaster bus and are soon on our way. It is about a 2.5 hour trip to our first lodge, which lies in the Caribbean lowlands. We stop at a local supermarket along the way and I recommend that everyone pick up a couple of bottles of Gatorade because it can be warm and humid in the lowlands.

Strawberry poison dart frogWe arrive at the lodge ahead of schedule so our rooms are not quite ready yet. But no worries—we simply head to lunch. The food at all of our lodges is plentiful and delicious. While walking to the dining room along the trails I notice the absence of the normal buzzing of the strawberry poison dart frog. I also notice that the water level in the small creek that flows through the property is lower than usual. One of the lodge employees tells me that they have not had rain for several days, which is very unusual. My concern is simply that when it is very dry, it is sometimes difficult to find the two different species of poison dart frogs that are common on this property. It also makes it more difficult to find and photograph the red-eyed tree frogs at night. So all during lunch, I am secretly praying for rain.

After lunch, the sky starts to darken and a cool wind whips through the trees. While unpacking my gear in the room, I hear the sound of giant rain drops hitting the metal roof and I am overjoyed. The rain shower grows to a pounding rain. The main trail on this property is covered so a few of us grab some camera gear and start walking. I knew that this rain would bring out the frogs. After the better part of an hour, the rain tapers off and finally stops. The air is now alive with the buzzing of the strawberry poison dart frog and we quickly find several of these ¾-inch long amphibians to photograph. We continue to a spot where I have had very good success photographing the larger green and black poison dart frog in the past. Almost as if it had been scripted, we find several of these frogs that would pose for our lenses. We even find a pair that was obviously courting. This is perfect for photography because one frog would stop and the other would follow, getting very close. Sometimes, one even reaches up to touch the other. The pair sits perfectly still sometimes for several minutes while our camera shutters whir.

Male emerald basilisk lizardThis great start to our first day continues as one of the tour participants spots a beautiful male emerald basilisk lizard, with its dorsal crests raised, on the trunk of a tree. At first it looks like the angle of the sun might be a problem. But a few steps further down the trail gives us clear shots of the lizard as the sun shines through its crests. As we head back down the trail toward our rooms, we find a beautiful female emerald basilisk to complete the set. So, in the first couple of hours, we already bag three of the main target species from this lodge, the strawberry dart frog, the green and black poison dart frog, and the emerald basilisk lizard. We have one more target subject left. And we won’t have a chance at that until it gets dark!

It is already getting dark as we head to the dining room for dinner. Along the way, I stop to show the group where we will be photographing the fourth of our iconic species, the beautiful red-eyed tree frog. The small pond near the dining room is surrounded by trees and large-leafed plants. After dark, the red-eyed tree frogs descend from the trees to court, call and mate. The male’s call is just a short single chirp and I hear one or two of them. But they are still out of sight.

After dinner, we go to our rooms to gather our photo gear and return to this small pond. By now I have located a couple of photographable subjects. Even though it is nighttime and pitch black out, we do not use flash to light our “froggy” subjects. It is believed that the bright light from the flashes can injure the frogs’ eyes and even their skin. And from a photographic perspective, the bright flashes will quickly constrict the pupils in the frogs’ eyes to a very narrow slit. This is a very unnatural look for this subject and when you see pictures of one of these frogs with razor-thin pupils, you know that it was shot either during the day or using bright artificial light. Over the years I have perfected a way to photograph these rain forest icons at night without flash and without bright lights. This is much better for the frogs and you can see in the pictures that their pupils are still dilated and natural looking. We shoot the frogs until about 9 PM and then head to bed.

Keel-billed toucan in Costa RicaThe next morning we leave after breakfast to visit a location where we have a good chance to photograph scarlet macaws and the endangered great green macaws. These are wild macaws that come to a farmer’s property where he has put out food for them for years. We have great opportunities to photograph the macaws interacting in the trees and even the chance to capture these magnificent birds in flight. We return to our lodge for lunch and spend the afternoon capturing more images of the frogs and lizards on the grounds. Along the trail I run into another lodge guest. I share some information regarding the lizards and frogs and the best places to find them and he, in turn, shares the location of a keel-billed toucan nest in one of the large trees on the property. It pays to be nice. I point out the location of the nest, which is well-hidden from our view by a giant climbing vine, to our group and, over the next day, most of us manage to get some nice shots of the toucan near the nest. After dinner, we again have another chance at photographing the red-eyed tree frogs.
Early the following morning we head to a nearby property that is owned by some very nice people. They have planted the area with vegetation that attracts birds. They also have several hummingbird feeders and fruit feeding stations that attract several of the smaller birds, such as blue-gray tanagers, red-legged honeycreepers, green honeycreepers, Baltimore orioles, and many others, to within easy camera range. The hummingbird feeders give us our first chance to feel the frustration of trying to photograph hummingbirds in flight. No worries, this will be relieved a bit later in the trip. After a productive morning, we return to our lodge for lunch. We have not seen another drop of rain since our much-welcomed rain on day one. But we are still able to spend our final afternoon here capturing the frogs and lizards that we will not see at higher altitudes later. After dinner, we have one final chance at red-eyed tree frogs.

Three-toed slothFollowing breakfast the next morning, we leave the lodge and head for a research area run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Here we walked the trails with a local guide. We are able to photograph javelina, also known as collared peccary. We see another one of the large toucans, the yellow-throated toucan. As it flies off, I follow it to another tree that is full of fruit and also full of several large birds called chachalacas. Then our local guide tells me there is a three-toed sloth in a tree. So we quickly scurry to that tree. It is a perfect setup. Not only is the sloth in the wide open, but it also has a baby. Unfortunately, when we arrive, the mother’s face is not visible as she is looking to the left while she sleeps. It is a little frustrating because her baby is smiling right at us. But one of the lessons of nature photography is that you must have patience. This is easier for some of our people than others. But about 30 minutes later, the mother sloth repositions so she is now facing us and junior is still smiling at us. The cameras click away. Another excellent capture! Walking back to the main research building and dining room for lunch, one of our participants spots a large brown lizard on a rock and points it out to me. I quickly say that it is not one, but two. In fact it is a male and a female brown basilisk lizard. They are obviously courting so they pretty much ignore our presence while we shoot.

After lunch, we continue to our next lodge which lies in the foothills at about 3,100 feet, arriving in the late afternoon. After getting settled in we meet out on the balcony overlooking the fruit feeders. There are several very active hummingbird feeders on this balcony. As we relax before dinner, a nice storm rolls in and it starts to rain. Again, the rain is a good thing as it will make our wildlife subjects more active over the coming days. At dinner, I find out that the area along the river where we usually look for sunbitterns has been excavated by the local emergency department, possibly to avoid the river overflowing during the wet season and flooding some nearby homes. That’s good news for those homeowners, but not so good for us.

But a couple of years earlier, Wilson, our local guide, had shown me a bird rookery that wasn’t too far from our lodge that we could use as a “Plan B” if we ever needed one. Well, time for Plan B. So after breakfast, we load up and head to this rookery. It is excellent. The rookery is on a bamboo island very close to one shore of a good-sized lake. The lake has several different types of lily pads on it that are being traversed by purple gallinules and northern jacana, one of which has three babies in tow. The rookery itself contains nests of great egrets, cattle egrets, black-crowned night herons and boat-billed herons. It is a great Plan B that has now become our Plan A!

Hummingbird Costa RicaThen it is back to the lodge for lunch. This is where we will be shooting our hummingbirds at the hummingbird stations. While I set up the shooting stations, I have Wilson take everyone who is interested in photographing bats tonight to the location we use up the forest trail. I want everyone to walk the trail during the day before walking it at night so they are familiar with it. When they return, we start rotating through the two hummingbird shooting stations. The group shoots at the stations until about an hour before dinner so I can break down one of the stations and take it into the forest for our bat shoot. I rush through dinner so I can get back into the forest to finalize the bat setup and to do some test shots for exposure. Shortly afterwards, Wilson brings up the group, stopping a couple of times along the way to show them giant orange-kneed tarantulas and whip scorpions. After getting everyone organized, we start our first bat session. Almost immediately, the bats come in and trigger our flashes. It is a very good night for bats, with several flash triggerings every minute. After two hours, we take a break. Everyone heads back to the lodge with a camera full of bat images and several take the opportunity to also photograph the tarantulas. I tell myself that I will only stay another 30 minutes or so. But the bat activity is so constant, that I end up staying until after midnight.

The entire next day is spent rotating through the hummingbird stations and snapping pictures of the birds, squirrels and coatis that come to the fruit feeders. But in the evening, I set up the bat photo station again along the forest trail. It is another really active night for the bats and we come away with many more awesome images.

We leave this lodge after breakfast and head to the first of our two highlands lodges. This one is at about 7,700 feet elevation. Here we will have the opportunity to photograph some higher altitude birds that we didn’t see in the lowlands. Right on the lodge property we are greeted by a pair of long-tailed silky flycatchers, Baltimore orioles, flame-colored tanagers and acorn woodpeckers. This property is covered by very well-maintained gardens and hummingbirds abound. After lunch, we head to our spacious rooms. A very nice rainstorm rolled in for the afternoon—and you know how much I love that!! The next morning, the sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky. We head up a neighboring mountain to a very nice feeding station that was designed and built by one of the family members of the lodge where we are staying. The best part is that he is also a photographer so he designed his station with photography in mind. And better yet, he listens intently when we offer suggestions. Besides the fruit feeders, there are also several very active hummingbird feeders here. We spend the morning filling memory cards with a variety of new species. At about 10:30, it is time for us to head back to the lodge just as the light rain begins to fall. We spend the afternoon shooting on the lodge property.

Male quetzal in nestThe next morning we again head to the feeding station to make sure we get good shots of all the players here. We return for lunch and then drive higher up the mountain to our final lodge and final quarry, the resplendent quetzal. This lodge sits at just below 9,000 feet. It gets chilly here at night, down into the upper forties, but the daytime temps are very mild. We are fortunate to not have to go very far to find nesting quetzals. There is a nest just a few hundred meters from our lodge. When we arrive at the nest site, the male resplendent quetzal is in the nest. We are immediately presented with one of the “Must Have” quetzal shots. Typically, when the male quetzal is in the nest sitting on the eggs, his tail extends out of the hole because it is so long. But the shot we want comes about 20 minutes later when the female returns for her turn on the eggs. For a few brief moments, before flying into the forest, the male pokes his head out of the nest hole while his tail feathers, called coverts, drape over his head. THIS is the shot you want. Oftentimes this scene lasts only a few seconds before the male leaves the nest. But this time, it actually lasts several minutes and everyone gets the shot. When the male finally does fly, he lands on a nearby branch where we get shots of him perching before he flies off to feed. Once the pair switches incubation duties, it could be 4 or 5 hours before they change places again. So we head back to the lodge with huge smiles on our faces as we got several nice shots within minutes of our arrival.

Near the dining area of the lodge they have hummingbird feeders and perches set up where we have a chance at several species, including the magnificent hummingbird, the lesser violetear, the diminutive mountain hummingbird, and the star of the show, the fiery-throated hummingbird. We are not able to use flash at this location so getting good shots of these little flying gems is a challenge—but very fun. After dinner, we retire to our rooms for some much-needed sleep. The next morning starts very early for us.

We gather at the dining room at 5:30 AM and meet Eric, our quetzal guide. He takes us back to the nest from yesterday. This time, the female is in the nest. We can hear the male quetzal calling from the trees signaling his mate that it is time to switch duties again. The female pokes her head out of the hole and remains there for us to photograph for a minute or two. She then flies off. About 15 minutes later, the male, with his long tail trailing behind, flies to the nest tree and hangs on the outside of the nest for several minutes before finally going inside. We head back for breakfast, again full of smiles.

Quetzal in Costa RicaThe rest of the morning is spent downloading cards and photographing hummingbirds on the back deck of the lodge. After lunch, we go on our third scheduled quetzal shoot. This time, the female is in the nest and we see the male flying about the treetops calling to her. But this time, she does not listen. We stay for several hours until it starts getting dark and the rumbles of thunder from an approaching storm grow louder. Eventually, we are forced to leave due to darkness, without ever taking a shot. A little disappointing, but we already have several really nice quetzal shots in the bag so no one gives it a second thought. I speak with Eric afterwards to find out if there is any possibility of having an additional quetzal shoot the next morning since we weren’t leaving until after lunch. He checks it out and gets back to me at dinner to say YES! It would be another 5:30 AM departure. But most of us make the extra trip to the nest. Again, we are rewarded with nice shots of both the male and the female resplendent quetzal. We return to the lodge for breakfast. Then we pack up and bring our bags to the reception area. While waiting for lunch, we all go out and again shoot the hummingbirds using natural light on natural perches. We finally figured out the pattern of the fiery-throated hummingbirds, so we are able to actually get pictures of them with their throats ablaze. It is a really fun and easy way to spend our final morning of the tour.

After lunch, we have a chance to relax during the 3-hour ride back to our hotel in San Jose. Our farewell dinner is full of laughter and recollections of all of the wonderful things we had seen and photographed during our two weeks in Costa Rica. I can’t wait until next year!

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