Costa Rica Birds 2021 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on May 17, 2021

Wow! I can’t tell you just how great it was to be back out traveling and photographing again. It’s been a very long year. This was our first trip since COVID-19 put an abrupt stop to everyone’s travel just over a year ago. By following the CDC safety guidelines, our Costa Rica Birds tour went off without a hitch.
Our adventure began in the Caribbean lowlands in the northern part of the country. The warmth and humidity offered us a huge variety of colorful tropical subjects for our cameras. From the main deck of our comfortable lodge, we photographed three species of toucans—keel-billed, yellow-throated, and collared aracaris. Montezuma oropendolas, brown-hooded parrots, and a variety of colorful tanagers and honeycreepers also visited our epiphyte-covered perches. The trees surrounding the deck are home to nesting black-crowned tityras, black-cheeked woodpeckers and Central American pygmy owls. In the clearing, a pair of great curassows strutted, and occasionally, a pair of young coatimundis sneaked in to steal bananas from the birdfeeders.
The photography started early, before breakfast. With sunrise at 5:30 AM, there is plenty of light to photograph the early birds as they arrived at our bird feeder perches. As the sun climbed higher, vultures left the trees to ride the warm thermals. This was our signal to head to the specially constructed photography blinds to photograph the largest and most ornate vulture of the Americas—the king vulture. There were king vultures of various ages near the blinds, from the nearly entirely black juveniles to the magnificent white adults with their colorfully adorned heads. We were treated to a couple of photogenic crested caracaras this year as well.
Later in the day, we safely photographed a variety of snakes and frogs in natural settings including both yellow and green eyelash vipers, fer-de-lance, hognose viper and barred leaf frog. The venomous snakes were moved safely by experienced handlers and are photographed from a safe distance with telephoto lenses—so there is no danger.
From there we traveled to our second lowland lodge. A heavy overnight rain was exactly what we needed to energize the strawberry poison dart frogs and the green & black poison darts frogs making them easy for us to find and photograph them the next morning. Large iguanas roam the property as well as the beautiful emerald basilisk lizard—all wonderful subjects for our cameras. After dinner, as night falls, the red-eyed tree frogs descend from the canopy over a small pond. Carefully lit, we photographed these icons of the rainforest while they called for mates.
Early the next day, we traveled to an area known for its macaws. We photographed scarlet macaws and great green macaws as they flew in to feed.
We departed the lowlands and began our ascent into the foothills. At 3000 ft elevation, the mix of birds and their habitat changes with the altitude. Our comfortable lodge maintains a feeding station where blue gray tanagers, crimson-collared tanagers, Montezuma oropendolas, brown jays, gray-headed chachalacas and Lesson’s motmots are regular visitors. I set up two multi-flash hummingbird stations here and everyone had good photo opportunities with these setups. The hummingbird activity was off the charts this year with white-necked jacobins and green-breasted mangos being the stars of the show. At night, we photographed orange nectar bats and Palla’s long-tongued bats using a similar multi-flash setup as they come to feed in our nectar-filled flowers.
We left the foothills and continued our drive into the highlands. Our lodge lies in the heart of the cloud forest at 8300 feet. Fiery-throated, Talamanca, lesser violet-eared and white-throated mountain gem hummingbirds crowd the feeders and flowers at our sprawling lodge. But the hummingbirds are not our primary focus there. We were now in the habitat of one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas—the resplendent quetzal.
Our tour is timed with the resplendent quetzal’s nesting season. This year, we arrived just days before the quetzal chicks were ready to leave the nest. For two days, we honed our skills capturing both the male and female resplendent quetzal flying to the nest with a variety of things to feed their fledgling chicks such as mini avocados, blackberries, golden beetles, and dragonflies. The male would sometimes perch on a branch of a tree where the chicks could see him and hold a delicious tidbit in his beak while softly calling, encouraging the chicks to take the big fledging plunge. Resplendent quetzals usually lay 2 eggs—a day or two apart. The eggs will hatch at different times so the chicks will often be a day or two apart in age. On our final morning at the nest, the female flew in carrying a dragonfly to the eager chicks. The older chick wolfed it down as the female flew off. About one minute later, this chick left the nest for the first and only time. The adult male followed the chick and continued to feed it in the forest. While we were not there to see the second chick fledge, it likely happened a day or two later.
After lunch, we drove to our final lodge, about 1000 feet lower. The afternoon was used to download cards and charge batteries. The next morning, we headed to a feeding station on the neighboring hillside. We photographed several new species such as the acorn woodpecker, silver-throated tanager, and flame-colored tanager.
Our first tour of 2021 went exceptionally well with lots of great photo ops. I’m really looking forward to returning to Costa Rica in November for “The Green Season” tour! 

Trip report photos by Mark Thomas and Eric Rock.