Saturday, 1 November 2014

Trip report: Costa Rica by Liam Curson

Country visited: Costa Rica
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
Now, this wasn't a classic “birding holiday”, unlike my previous trip report for the NGB blog (Fuerteventua in October 2013). I was largely restricted to birding the same patch of rainforest for a month, so it seems silly to write this as a classic report, where I detail all the locations and species in chronological order. I didn't see enough of Costa Rica for that to be representative of all its incredible birding opportunities. Instead, I’ll offer my perspectives on being a bird guide, and the general rules birding in rainforests, with some not-so brief notes on species seen to whet your appetites!

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
I’d wholly recommend it, as an intrinsically rewarding thing to do, a great way to test if you’re suited to a career in birding, and an incredible way to see other parts of the world and their vast, mind-boggling array of birdlife.

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. 

Long-tailed Skipper
What will strike you about rainforest birding though, particularly, if like me, the most tropical you've been is Cyprus, is the heat and humidity. This, combined with the altitude, meant that I went from being reasonably fit in the UK to knackered by a twenty-minute walk when I first arrived! Your body gradually accustoms to this, but birding in the rainforest always feels pretty intense. The levels of patience waiting for tiny birds to jump out of impossibly thick cover, the neck-craning to desperately try and get onto feeding flocks, the fact that the forest can often go completely dead, especially from about 10am to 3pm, can all be a bit soul-destroying at first. But the required early wake-ups are surprisingly easy, since it gets dark at six and you tend to be in bed by eight or nine. And given time in the forest, you learn the ebbs and flows of activity, and how to get the most out of your birding.

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. 
Grey-headed Chachalaca
Day two was characterised by my first Crested Guan, and what a bird that was! I've never seen something so utterly, beautifully prehistoric, nor seen such a large bird (Turkey sized or bigger) move so nimbly through the lower reaches of a canopy. Green Thorntail and Black-crested Coquette were both tiny little gems of hummingbirds, utterly adorable and showing well at one of the feeders. Masked Tityra was incredible, when perched on a tree with wings fanned out it looked for all the world like a black and white Wallcreeper. Speckled Tanager too, was a new bird and resplendently plumaged. The following day was much of the same, but I do remember being utterly bedazzled by a Collared Aracari, a Toucan with a velociraptor-like bill that made it look fierce indeed.
Collared Aracari
Over the coming days, as my knowledge grew and I went out birding with groups and other senior guides, more and more incredible species began flooding my senses. The immaculate Snowcap, perhaps THE most beautiful Hummingbird in the world, was quite something. Green-crowned Brilliant was another absolutely marvellous hummer. I even started identifying Woodcreepers, confidently picking out Wedge-billed, Streak-headed and Cocoa. I saw my first of both White-collared and White-ruffed Mannakins, had glimpses of the mega elusive Black-throated Wren and Dull-mantled Antbird, and eventually started seeing regular Tawny-chested Flycatchers, the bird that is a real attraction for the serious birders visiting Rancho, the one they’ll struggle to get anywhere else in the world. I visited a few other sites with groups and senior guides, but taking in a few varied habitats such as wetlands and rapids. At the former, Boat-billed Heron and Yellow-headed Caracara were highlights, the latter was almost indescribable with my first Sunbittern (WHAT A BIRD!), Torrent Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, Buff-rumped Warbler, Bay Wren and Amazon and Green Kingfishers
White-necked Jacobin
As time wore on, I started scouring slightly different habitats around the lodge, and by improving my ability to bird, plus occasionally getting lucky and helping the professional guides and their groups, I started picking out more and more of the tricky species. Species like Yellow-billed Cacique and White-lined Tanager in the sugar fields on 1st July, Sulpur-winged Parakeet and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis the following day, a Black-headed Saltator on the 5th, and showing all those patient enough out of a large group some elusive White-ruffed Mannakins on the 6th. This was interspersed with heading back to the rapids and finding five resplendent Sunbitterns, and locating a Rancho rarity in the shape of a pair of Green Ibises. On the 7th I set myself the challenge of a bird race, being out from 3am til 6pm. I was pretty pleased with 63 species, though later when birding with Harry, and having his expertise at hand, we recorded 81 in a single morning! These 63 included a stunning lifer in a pair of Common Pauraque, gorgeous views of a Crested Guan at daybreak, refinding the Green Ibises, and as the day ended, being afforded views of Snowcaps and Purple-crowned Fairies bathing in riverside pools that would make the gods sing. 
Brown Violet-ear
The following four days or so gave biblical proportions in a different sense, namely rain! With Belgian guests staying, both I and pro guide Cali tried gallantly, taking umbrellas and returning with waterlogged shoes, and we did have some pretty good highlights; lekking White-collared Mannakins, stunning Slate-throated Redstarts, Lineated Woodpeckers, the enigmatic Rufous Mourner and a new Woodcreeper for me, a Plain Brown (which is quite pretty despite the moniker). We also located a small army ant swarm, which I did my best to find something good on as I tracked it round the forest for the next week or so, but which never seemed to hold more than Immaculate Antbirds, Checker-throated Antwrens and a few Rufous Motmots. All stunning birds though!

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. 

Violaceous Trogon
It’s rather a shame Harry Bernard, mentioned several times above, didn't arrive until the 15th, two days before I was prior to leave. He was doing much the same thing as me, getting free room and board in exchange for guiding services, the only difference being that Harry is a damn good guide who’s been visiting Costa Rica since he was 14, and is good enough by far to charge a fee. This also meant he completely outshone me, and as I said it’s a great shame that he didn't arrive sooner to help speed up my learning curve. It was his knowledge of calls and keener eyesight that really helped, alongside many years birding around here giving him an intuitive knack for knowing what was likely to pop out in front of you. A good days birding on the 15th saw us pick out by call Brown-throated Scythebill, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Thicket Antpitta and Eye-ringed Flatbill, and actually see other species I just hadn't encountered beforehand, like White-vented Euphonia, lekking White-crowned Mannakins, Ashy-throated Bush Tanager and Silver-throated Tanager. The following day was when we managed 81 species in just a single morning, including two lifers in Brown-hooded Parrot and Band-tailed Barbthroat. We then had a great, brutal and exhausting game of football with twenty or so locals in a park in the nearest village. 
Roadside Hawk
And then, by 07:00 on July 17th, Lisa was driving me back to San Jose airport, and by 13:00 that day the adventure was over, I was boarding a plane, tropical birding had ended and normal life could resume. But normal life would never quite be the same again, and I made a promise to myself, there and then, that I’d be back in the tropics whenever I could. I’d advise that you do the same too.

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 Curson
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.


  1. Hi Liam,

    I enjoued your account of your time in Costa Rica, especially the way bird guides have a 6th sense of where and when to spot birds. Your photo of the walking stick is as impressive as the bird shots. Have you or your NGB colleagues ever created a what-to-bring list for first-timers to a place like Costa Rica? Not the obvious things, but the little gadgets or batteries or special rain-wear. Odd, unusual, but practical stuff.
    Let me know if you've done that. I will interview you for a story on the what-to-bring topic.
    Rex Graham

  2. Hi Rex
    We don't have a list as such, however I can thinnk of a few interesting examples, and would be happy to take part in an interview at some point.

    Liam Curson