Locations: Rancho Naturalista, and other areas in the Central Valley
Dates: 18th June - 17th July
For this trip, I owe a lot to fellow NGB Oliver Simms. As you’ll see in the intro to his blogpost here, Ollie received three offers for free room and board from his numerous inquiries to nature reserves. Ollie took the offer of Cabanas San Isidro in Ecuador, meaning he had to turn down Rancho Naturalista. But rather than no-one getting to enjoy this fantastic offer, Ollie very kindly advertised the position on NGB, asking anyone who was up for it to get in touch with him. I most certainly was, and after Ollie gave me the e-mail address of Lisa Erb (Rancho’s owner), I set about persuading her I’d be up to filling his boots! Thankfully it all paid off, and I spent a most enjoyable and rewarding four weeks in the heart of Costa Rica. Here is the story, and some tips for anyone hoping to do similar!
|Rainforest looking over Rancho|
For starters, what’s being a bird guide like? Well, it’s an incredible opportunity to travel, see some wonderful birds and make your life list that bit more respectable! I didn't earn much money at Rancho, as they have very high standards for guides and I was effectively training, so charged no fee. It wasn't so much a job as a working holiday, where flights were my only expense. That being said, visitors who I showed around tipped me generously, so I did come back with $80 more than I departed England with! And once you’re an experienced guide, you can by all accounts make a decent living, especially if you’re young and not tied down! Even the local Costa Rican guides make enough in the high season to support young families, so while it’s a career you’ll choose for passion rather than pay, it is possible to get both.
However, you need a very particular set of skills to be a guide. Skills you have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make you a delight for people like Dave, Kathy, Matt, Nicole, Francis, Fritz, Spencer and others I guided. I think some people make excellent guides, and some people don’t. All the professional guides I met excelled with their expertise in finding and identifying the birds, their almost telepathic sense for knowing where they were going to appear and when, and eyes/ears that put most ordinary birders to shame. But above all, you need good people skills to make it as a guide. If you could put every guide I met in Costa Rica in one place and have a party, it’d be phenomenal, as they’re collectively one of the nicest, funniest, most intelligent groups of people I've ever met. To make it in this business, you’d have to be!
Don’t let my descriptions put you off, or make you think you’re unsuitable for it though. If you’re passionate about birds, confident with identification from birding in the UK, patient with less experienced birders and have good people skills, and get as much of a kick from sharing the beauty of a bird with others as you do from seeing it for yourself, you’ll do well. It’s just all about proving yourself capable once you’re out there, and if you contact enough reserves you should hopefully find one that’ll give you a chance. If you have experience volunteering, and leading any kind of wildlife walk for local societies in Britain, it’ll look even better.
|Moss Walking Stick|
However, if you've never birded in the rainforest before, you’re in for quite an experience! Birding is full-on here. My best advice is to study what you’re likely to see in the area first, as while a bird guide for Costa Rica will list 800+ species, no more than 500 of them will have occurred at any one site, and no more than 200 of them are likely to occur in the immediate area you’ll be staying at in the season you’re staying there (I might be making some of those figures up!). I was lucky in having an excellent checklist to study for Rancho, which listed each bird, it’s frequency, and the seasons it was likely to occur in. It’s also the case that for many species, when you see them well, you can sometimes have no problem just flicking through the field guide til you find the right one, tropical birds can look pretty distinctive! Even infamously tough groups like the Woodcreepers are completely do-able with decent views, knowing what to look for (easy enough to do by reading up beforehand), and a knowledge of what occurs in your area.
Do be careful for some of the more dangerous aspects of the forest too! I had one far-too-close encounter with a Jumping Pit Viper hiding in long rank grass (and with no herpetological expertise, I thought it could have been anything from a harmless Boa to the rather certain death associated with a Fer De Lance), and be especially cautious if going out at night. As fellow guide Stephen Easley quite bluntly put it, if you’re walking along a stream between 11am and 4pm (we were discussing looking for Costa Rica’s many rare and endemic amphibians with guests), you've got a death wish. All the staff at the lodge wore knee high wellies every time they ventured far into the forest, which protect you from most snake strikes, but they would have been pretty awkward for 4km birding hikes, so I was more cavalier.
While I’m at it, I may as well warn you of the insects too. I appear to have a miraculous ability not to get bitten TOO badly even without dabbing liberal amounts of bug spray, but some people would get absolutely savaged by mosquitoes if they forget so much as a single hard-to reach spot on their neck. My main issue was ants. Some of the smaller species could give a fairly nasty nip, while Fire Ants are well named. When I got bitten by an Army Ant, it’s a struggle to describe the pain. But it’s probably not that different to putting your fingertip under a stapler and slamming down on it. I had quite a strong painkiller gel in the first aid kit I tried never to go anywhere without, and I’d advise you to do the same. The pain wore down from cursing blue one minute after the bite, to a numb ache five minutes later, after half an hour it didn't hurt at all. Don’t let any of that put you off though, as long as you do actually escape with your life (as everyone I know so far has managed to do!), the rainforest encounters provide you with pretty excellent campfire stories!
Ah, and the birding itself, which I’m sure is all you’re really interested in. Well done for persevering all my waffle and trife, and I hope the next few paragraphs are at least a little bit worth it!
My first day (June 19th), saw me studying Hummingbirds for most of the morning. I’d really recommend getting to grips with these as soon as you can (should you be in Central/South America!), as they’re by far the most obvious birds by far, show ridiculously well on the feeders and identifying them always impresses guests who've never visited the tropics before. Each part of the tropics will have a few very abundant species, a few regular species, a few less common species and a few which constitute genuine rarities. Only worry yourself with the first three categories until you’re accustomed well with all of them, a good rule for all families in the rainforest! My best Hummingbird that first day in terms of rarity was Stripe-throated Hermit, a common species but one I didn't see every day. Green Hermit and Violet Sabrewing were both pretty stunning no matter how regularly I saw them, though I must admit I was a bit blase towards Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, White-necked Jacobins, Brown Violet-ears and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds after the first few days. Other highlights from day one were the stunning Violaceous Trogon, Rufous Motmot and Keel-billed Toucan , all of which I’d go on to see regularly, but still incredible to see the first time! Montezuma Oropendolas, one of the most abundant and charismatic birds, made me smile every single time I saw them for the whole month I was out there.
With Stephen Easley and two guests, AJ and Kim, I eventually got to Cerro De La Silencio, a mountain that had almost acquired mythical status in my mind, on 12 July. It’s barely four km from Rancho to the base of the mountain, but reaching the summit and its mythical birds (Resplendant Quetzal and Lovely Cotinga among others), is one hell of a challenge, and I’m afraid its one I’ll have to wait til my next visit to conquer. Even at the base though, I was introduced to totally different birdlife. Not so much due to the altitude, I suspect, as the fact that backing away to the north from this mountain is nearly 100 miles of pristine, completely protected forest. Costa Rica in fact has more of its land (¼) protected from development than any other country on the planet. This meant species less common at Rancho like Black Guan, Common Bush Tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager and Golden-bellied Flycatcher could be found, while other species like Tawny-capped Euphonia and Silver-throated Tanager I did eventually find at Rancho, while properly exploring some of the upper reaches of the forest here. The day finally ended on a high when, with newly arrived guests Fritz and Spencer from Florida, I successfully located a Mottled Owl on a night walk, a just reward after many near misses and hearing birds tantalisingly close.
Postscript: I’d just like to thank Lisa Erb and Mario Cerdas, the husband and wife team running Rancho, for being so accomodating and patient as I learnt the birds and did my best to help out. Alongside John and Kathy Erb, and Wayne Easley and Kevin Easley (owner of company Costa Rican gateway, great if you’re planning a birding trip there) they give Rancho a distinctive family vibe, albeit a disproportionately Texan one! I also owe a great deal of gratitude to the guides who let a rank amateur come along and pretend he was helping, if you’re in need of a guide and visiting CR, take my word that Stephen Easley, Harry Bernard, Herman Venegas, Rick Taylor and Cali, Christian, Charlie and Chico (afraid I either don’t know or have forgotten the surnames of the last few), are all well worth the money to hire, they will blow you away with their knowledge, good humour and patience.
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.