Costa Rica Birds 2017 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on May 08, 2017

This April I met the Costa Rica Birds group on the evening of Day 1 for an orientation and welcome dinner.

The next morning after breakfast, having complete trust in our driver, Wilson (who was also our driver last year), I sent most of the group ahead to our first lodge in the Caribbean lowlands while I tended to a minor medical situation with one of the participants. We rejoined the group at the lodge by mid-afternoon. Wilson had everyone settled into their rooms, and several people from our group were already exploring the lodge property and photographing birds, frogs and lizards when I arrived.  

It was warm and humid at our first lodge in the lowlands. This takes a little bit of adjusting to by some, while others never missed a beat and were out shooting as much as possible. These conditions are, however, perfect for the creatures we were here to photograph, such as the poison dart frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, basilisk lizards and iguanas which would not be found at higher and cooler elevations later in the trip. After dinner, we gathered at a nearby pond and waited for red-eyed tree frogs to descend from the trees and get into photography range. Typically, the smaller males show up first near the water and wait for the larger females to come down from the branches in the hopes of courtship. Usually, a little rain helps energize the frogs. Unfortunately, it was dry the entire time we visited. Despite this, we did have the opportunity to photograph a few red-eyed tree frogs each night. We did not use flash as that is believed to hurt their eyes and damage their skin. So we shot them using only low-power flashlights.

The next morning after breakfast we headed to a location with high hopes of photographing macaws. Our goals were to photograph scarlet macaws and green macaws both while they were perching and in flight. These are wild macaws that have become accustomed to a local rancher who puts food out for them each morning. They are not caged. They come and go as they please. Everybody was very pleased with the images they were able to make at this location, including me. 

After lunch we were shooting on the lodge property. Even though the dry conditions were not optimal for frogs, they were apparently perfect for emerald basilisk lizards, which we found in abundance. Several males and females of various sizes and markings were easily photographed throughout the property. After dinner, we tried the red-eyed tree frogs again. We were also greeted by the deep continuous chorus of two male Savage’s bullfrogs (a.k.a. smoky jungle frog) who were competing with their song for the affection of a somewhat disinterested female.

In the morning, we visited a nearby nature center with gardens and feeders that attract a variety of small birds, such as tanagers, honeycreepers and flycatchers. There was also an area with flowers and feeders to attract hummingbirds. Everyone did very well shooting here. The star of the show here was an otherwise nondescript little brown bird that was nesting down the trail over a dry creek bed. This was the royal flycatcher. A few of us tried waiting out this little bird who frequently came within shooting distance of our lenses. But only once did it display the crown responsible for its name.

We returned to the lodge for lunch and photographed the birds and other creatures on the property until dinnertime. After dinner, we had one final chance to photograph the red-eyed tree frogs.

After breakfast the next morning morning we headed to the Organization of Tropical Studies Station for a walking tour. The dry weather seemed to be keeping the activity level low. But we did have more opportunities with the strawberry poison dart frogs and the Central American ameiva lizard. Following lunch, we headed to our next lodge in the Caribbean foothills. The weather here was cooler and less humid, a welcome relief for some. We arrived in time to take a short hike through the forest to the area where we would be photographing bats. There was not time to set up the gear, but one member of our group was shooting videos and not stills. So it was a good opportunity for her to shoot without camera flashes and motor drives whirring. After dinner we went back to the spot and she set up her camera to do infrared video. The bat activity was very good and a steady stream of them visited our feeders. 

The next morning we took a short ride to a river to look for sunbitterns. We were unsuccessful with the sunbitterns, but one of our participants found a really nice eastern parrot snake in a low tree that was easy to photograph. After returning to the lodge, we got the hummingbird photography started at one of the stations. Everyone rotated through the station and got a chance to shoot. By dinnertime, the weather was closing in and it had started raining. We were planning on heading up to photograph bats after dinner, but the rain persisted and most of our group decided to call it a night. Somewhere around 9 PM the rain let up enough for the remainder of us to go into the forest and give the bats a try. Between the raindrops we managed a few bat pictures. 

We briefly tried for the sunbitterns the next morning, but without success. So we came back early and got both hummingbird set-ups up and running. We shot hummingbirds the rest of the day. The rain came in heavy again at dinnertime. So no attempt at bats on the final night in the foothills.

After breakfast we hit the road for the highlands. We arrived at our lodge in time for lunch. After lunch, we went on our first resplendent quetzal tour. We were at a quetzal nest with good activity. The chicks were young and both adults were bringing back food to the chicks, but afternoon light was not optimal. The next morning we left at 5:15 AM to go back to the nest. The activity was really good, and the light was much better in the morning. We were able to switch our afternoon shoot scheduled for today to the next morning to take advantage of the good light. It was a good thing that we did because heavy rain came in shortly after lunch and it rained for the entire afternoon. The next morning about half of the group made the 5:15 AM call to head back to the quetzal nest. The activity was very good this morning, with both parent birds regularly bringing back avocados and insects for the chicks. After lunch we headed to our final lodge, one a bit lower in elevation. There, we spent both mornings photographing several new bird species at a nearby feeding station. Flame-colored tanagers, silver-cheeked tanagers, long-tailed silky flycatchers and acorn woodpeckers were the stars of the show here.

This year’s trip was very successful for capturing a huge variety of birds, frogs, lizards—and more—with our cameras. This is always a great trip for shooting a variety of subjects. I’m already looking forward to Costa Rica 2018!

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