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First Trip to Costa Rica


mtanenbaum

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mtanenbaum

My husband and I just returned from a Thanksgiving week trip to Costa Rica. We spent most of the trip in the Southern Pacific area, with 4 nights in Uvita and 3 nights in the Osa Peninsula. We concluded the fun with a day trip birding near San Jose. I used the travel agent Costa Rica Experts to put the trip together but had done quite a bit of research in advance and had some ideas already on where I wanted to go. For a small country there are many fascinating different areas to visit--way too much for one trip, unless you have 3-4 weeks to tour around!

 

Here's a teaser photo, with the blue throated toucanet....By the way I am not a "birder", just a person who enjoys birds, so please don't hesitate to correct me if I misidentify some of these feathered beauties!

 

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Edited by mtanenbaum
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mtanenbaum

We arrived in San Jose late at night, after flying from LA on Copa Airlines through Panama City. We were pleasantly surprised by Copa's coach service, which was more spacious than the US carriers, provided free meals, and no charge for luggage. We spent our first night and last night at the Holiday Inn Express by the airport, which was perfectly pleasant and very convenient since they have a free 24 hour shuttle and the hotel is only about 2 minutes from the airport. 

 

The next day we were picked up by a driver and taken across Costa Rica and then down the Pacific Coast to Uvita, where we stayed at Rancho Pacifico, an elegant ecolodge. The hotel is owned by an American couple and this area of CR has quite a few expat Americans living there. The hotel was up a very steep road, which you could only access with a 4X4. We did not have a car during our stay, and the downside was we wound up eating at the hotel 3 of the 4 nights, since a taxi back and forth to the small town of Uvita cost $40 round-trip, a not inconsiderable sum. Rancho Pacifico is adults only, and the guests were mostly Americans. I thought it might be full of honeymooners, but that was actually not the case. They provide transportation to a nearby beach if desired, although we didn't use it because we wound up with excursions each day that we were there that had been booked by the travel agent.  Our room had a stunning view of the Pacific, and many butterflies and moths hovering around. I saw a few hummingbirds as well. There was definitely wildlife on the property of the hotel--I saw toucans, an almost tame coati, and apparently there is a sloth that frequents their property, although we did not see it. The hotel included a delicious and hearty breakfast; dinners were pricey ($44 US per person) as were cocktails. The dinners were beautifully presented but with very small portions, so if you're a hearty eater and/or had done a lot of hiking you might still be hungry after! We did not eat lunch at the hotel, but ate instead after our different activities at local "sodas" or cafes where we could get typical Costa Rican fare, which we enjoyed since it was very fresh and simple. CR is not a foodie destination by any means but the fruit there was so delicious compared to what we get in the US!

 

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view from Rancho Pacifico of Whale's Tale sand formation

 

Uvita is apparently an excellent place for whale-watching, but we were there in between the two whale migrations that go up and down the Pacific coast, so we were unable to go whale watching. We were told that August is the top month in terms of numbers of whales you are likely to see. 

 

Our first excursion was a mangrove tour, where we saw a variety of birds, particularly water birds, some howler monkeys (too far away for my camera to manage), and a number of huge iguanas. I will post a few shots below.

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yellow headed caracara

 

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Not sure what kind of hawk this is--does anyone know?

 

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beautiful scenery in mangroves

 

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Peregrine falcon--the guide was very excited to see this bird; apparently not common in this area.

 

We spent the afternoon visiting a nearby animal sanctuary, Alturas, which takes in wild animals from the area which they try to rehabilitate and re-release. Some of the animals cannot be re-released since they were raised by humans from birth, or have other physical or mental problems, and those animals live at the sanctuary. I knew this could be my only opportunity to see a sloth close up, and indeed in the rest of the trip we saw them only through scopes. The tour guide was excellent and told many moving stories of the histories of the individual animals. I was particularly struck by the story of one parrot who lives there now who had lived in a hotel lobby for 35 years; they were unable to integrate the bird with other parrots, who rejected it because it did not even know how to communicate in "parrot" after living in the hotel for so long. It was clear that the volunteers had a passion for their work and I felt this was an excellent place to visit and support while in the area. Below are some photos of their residents, along with a wild white-faced Capuchin monkey they have nicknamed Dennis the Menace, who hangs around their 3 female monkeys and according to the guide, has been very "creative" in his attempts to get "romantic" with them. They also pass him parts of their food rations!

 

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"Dennis the Menace"

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porcupine

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Alturas sanctuary sloth

 

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Dennis the Menace sharing food with captive monkeys

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Wild toucan hanging around the wildlife sanctuary

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mtanenbaum

The next day we enjoyed a bird-watching walk in the national park in Uvita, the Marino Ballena National Park. 

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Some kind of iguana...

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To give you an idea of the very busy beach in Uvita....

 

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osprey

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curious coati on grounds of hotel

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toucan on a tree at the hotel

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grey-necked wood rail

 

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red lored parrot

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Lots of great birds! The 2nd bird in your first post is an Osprey! Which you correctly identified in your 2nd post :)

 

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mtanenbaum

Thanks, Janet for the correction--although it still looks like a the caracara to me, at least comparing to the photos I found online. Anyone else have an opinion?

 

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27 minutes ago, mtanenbaum said:

Thanks, Janet for the correction--although it still looks like a the caracara to me, at least comparing to the photos I found online. Anyone else have an opinion?

 

It looks like a caracara to me, too. 

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mtanenbaum

We left Uvita by car to Sierpe, where we picked up another boat through the mangrove forests to get to Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula. This boat ride was more like a water taxi, that is, we didn't stop for wildlife sightings. The Osa Peninsula made Uvita look like Los Angeles--even the forests of Uganda where I went gorilla and chimp trekking didn't seem as remote as this place. It wasn't that hot but it was incredibly humid.  We stayed at La Paloma, which runs these days about $600/night for two, including food and activities. Not Africa expensive, but it seemed high for Costa Rica, although not as high as Lapa Rios, one of the other ecolodges in the Osa Peninsula. Of course you expect to pay more for such a remote location. We had a power outage while we were there at night, and it took about 1/2 hour for the emergency generator to go on. I was a little surprised that they had no flashlights available for guests--we wound up borrowing one from another guest at the lodge. This seemed like something they could have supplied at that price point! The food at the lodge was abundant and good. With a 3-night stay they included an outing to go snorkling at Cano Island, a national park nearby, and an outing to Corcovado National Park. I did not participate in the snorkling but my husband enjoyed it, and the guide, an Italian fellow, said it was one of the nicest spots in the world for snorkling, and he had been all over the world as a scuba and snorkling instructor.

 

For the trip to Corcovado we paid extra for a private guide, which I was glad I had done since the other group had 8 people with the guide, which is a lot if you are trying to look at rapidly moving monkeys and birds through a scope. I was a bit disappointed in the wildlife viewing there, which is supposed to be some of the best in Costa Rica. We did see a number of spider monkeys, but not howler or capuchin monkeys, and our guide did not spot any sloths during our hike. We did see an agouti (large rodent), and a number of coatis, some bats sleeping in a dead tree, and of course, birds. No scarlet macaws unfortunately, at least that morning. I never did get a good enough sighting of them to be able to photograph them, so that will have to wait until another trip (lots of toucans though!)  I chose Corcovado over Manuel Antonio for our trip since there are way fewer tourists there, but I think the downside, at least from a photography point of view, is that the animals are less habituated and harder to photograph. This is a trade off I hadn't considered, and I may try Manuel Antonio on another trip if I am not there in high season. One of our guides told us a story about a tourist he was guiding in Manuel Antonio who got so close to a Capuchin monkey to take its photo that the monkey grabbed her I-phone out of her hand, and played with it for a half hour or so until he lost interest. Apparently the phone was covered with monkey drool but still worked....good story, if it's true!

 

One of the highlights of La Paloma was their small beach, where we lucked out and saw baby turtles emerging from the sand and making their journey to the ocean. This is something I have seen on TV but did not expect to see there. A bird was waiting for the turtles and seemed quite perturbed by the hotel guests watching the turtles, which saved the lives of probably a few of the little guys by protecting them from being the bird's dinner!

 

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room at La Paloma

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La Paloma balcony

 

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toucan from La Paloma balcony

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turtles hatching

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brave little turtle

 

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red-eyed tree frog on night hike (it was incredibly hot and humid that evening so I only made it through the first hour or so! We did see a sloth through a scope that was very active...for a sloth that is.

 

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the best shot I managed of the very active, back-lit, way up in the tree canopy spider monkeys!

 

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beautiful bird in Corcovado--some kind of trogon...does anyone know the exact kind? I think it's a gartered trogon but not sure...

 

The flight from Drake Bay back to San Jose was really gorgeous--we flew low and the day was very clear, so we had a magnificent view of the coastline. I don't usually bother to take photos from airplanes, but couldn't resist in this instance...

 

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Ah I think you are right...it IS a Yellow-headed Caracara. The angle and the line behind the eye threw me.

 

And a beautiful shot of the Trogon!

 

Edited by janzin
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Alexander33

I’m enjoying this report very much.  I love Costa Rica, and especially the Osa Peninsula. 
 

Are we sure about the Gartered Trogon ID?  With the more iridescent greenish color in the neck and chest area, and bluish eye-ring instead of yellow, it looks to me like a male Black-throated Trogon, which I’ve seen in the Osa Peninsula during our visits there. 

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Osa is one of my favorite places in CR; we stayed at Bosque del Cabo and the amount of wildlife there was overwhelming. Too bad you did not encounter more of it, but maybe that's a reason to go back.

Seeing the baby turtles hatch must've been quite an event, hope to see them someday.

Great trogon photo, I would vote for a black-throated, too.

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Ahhh, Costa Rica on a sunny day is such a lovely place! As for the prices of La Paloma, those have really hiked up in recent years. Luckily one can still find a room in the generally same location for much less.

Of birds, I would say all three photos are of Yellow-headed Caracara, and the trogon is a Black-throated (Yellow-bellied) Trogon - Trogon rufus.

Edited by xelas
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Atravelynn

Nice way to spend your Thanksgiving!  The little turtles heading to the sea are outstanding.  Something I've wanted to see.  What a nice surprise.

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mtanenbaum

Thanks for the updates on the bird ID's! We had planned to do some sightseeing in San Jose after our flight from Drake Bay, but since the flight was delayed by about 2 hours, by the time we got into San Jose it was too late for the museums. We did have a fabulous dinner at a tiny restaurant I found on TripAdvisor, 11.47 , which was just a $3 cab ride from downtown San Jose. The restaurant only holds about 10 customers so reservations are a must. The price was very reasonable by US standards--we had a 7-course dinner (small portions, so we were able to at least taste everything and mostly finish each course until we got to the dessert!) for a fraction of what something similar would have cost in Los Angeles, so that was a nice treat. The next day I had arranged to have a specialized birding guide pick us up and take us birding in the Poas Volcano area not too far from San Jose. I found him through another birding guide I found in a Fodor's guidebook who is located in Manuel Antonio. As I figured, the birding guides all know each other so he was able to refer me to someone in San Jose. This was my first time "birding" with a real guide--an expedition inspired by the many amazing birders and bird photos on Safaritalk! I REALLY enjoyed it and now want to go on a birding vacation in Costa Rica!!! Even my grumpy husband really enjoyed himself. The guide was Diego Quesada who has his own birding guide company. He picked us up in a really nice and comfortable van at 5:30 AM and dropped us back off at our airport hotel around 4:00 pm. His prices were not cheap ($230/person for a full day) but when I looked at it on an hourly basis it seemed reasonable to me. I don't know how his prices compare to other birding guides, however. He spoke excellent English, had a great sense of humor, and was a delight to spend the day with. I had told him I was very interested in seeing quetzals, if at all possible...they don't live in the part of Costa Rica we had visited so this would be our chance to get a glimpse. He knew exactly where they liked to hang out, since they like a particular type of wild avocado, and he knew where to find these particular trees near the side of the roads. Our first attempt was unsuccessful, but on our second stop, when he called the bird through the magic of Merlin, one actually flew over to us! I found this tremendously exciting!!! Clearly I must be a birder in the making.

 

We drove past beautiful landscapes...

 

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The weather was lovely--cool and dry, a great feeling after the heat and humidity of the Osa Peninsula! 

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wild avocado--favorite food of the quetzal. They looked like the kind we eat, but in miniature! Like food for a dollhouse.

 

I can't resist posting this ridiculously bad quetzal picture--we did get a good view through Diego's great scope but I didn't manage a decent picture. This one is so bad it's actually funny!!! The quetzal was a juvenile so it didn't have the long extravagant tail feathers.

 

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After our quetzal sighting we drove on to a farm owned by a friend of Diego's, where the owner had set up some hummingbird feeders. We saw a large variety of hummingbirds, but I wasn't really able to identify them well from my bird book. Some of the other birds I think I identified correctly. I really should take notes when we are out but it does spoil trying to enjoy the moment for me! I was able to get some nice hummingbird shots so if anyone wants to chime in with the IDs that would be great....

 

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OK, I admit my extreme ignorance--are these two pictures the same type of hummingbird???

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clay colored thrush, national bird of Costa Rica

 

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Baltimore oriole

 

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Passerini's tanager

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Melodius blackbird

 

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??? this is the kind of bird at home I call a LBB (little brown bird). does anyone know this one? and another LBB below...

 

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I think going with a local guide is the only way to really see the wildlife. It's more expensive, but so worth it. 

Your ??? bird is a rufous-collared sparrow. Even the sparrows are nice and colorful in CR, right?

And your Melodius blackbird is actually a front look at the Passerini's tanager (I think).

The hummingbirds are difficult, but I think your last one is a Talamanca Hummingbird.

I added Diego Quesada to my list of possible birding guides, thanks! We never stop and stay in San Jose, so we never got to try any restaurants in the area, but 11.47 sounds wonderful.

Edited by xyz99
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Zubbie15

Nice photos of some beautiful birds. It's really amazing what a good bird guide can find, we experienced that first hand when we went to Australia a few years ago. I've also bookmarked Diego's info in case we're ever in the area. 

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The Melodious Blackbird is indeed a Passerini's Tanager; the beak of the Blackbird is narrower and completely black.

The second LBJ is a Clay-coloured Trush. 

Of hummers, I would start from bottom:

last one to me looks like Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

above him is a Coppery-headed Emerald

above again the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, and first one another Coppery-Headed Emerald.

 

However, don't take my ID as final; hopefully @michael-ibk will correct me (if needed).

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