Monday, March 29, 2010

Aerial Tram and Savegre Lodge

Yes, that is a Resplendent Quetzal.  One of the most sought after birds of the Tropics, possibly in the world.  They are endemic to Central America, ranging from southern Mexico into central Panama.  A bird of the highlands, their range is usually restricted to above 7000ft in elevation, but sticking to the deep valleys rather than the mountaintops.  
With their deep, blood red chest,  iridescent blue head and shimmering blue-green back, they are widely regarded as the most beautiful bird in the world.  
The twin "feathery" feathers extending past the tail are one of the signature field marks of this species.  Not really tail feathers, the two feathers are actually the extended central two upper tail covert feathers. 
We saw a total of about 8 Quetzals during our 2 day stay at Savegre Lodge.  Not bad eh? :D

Our last day at La Selva Research Station brought rain, a few lifers, and a sighting of a bird that we would see only once. Mimi picked out a Laughing Falcon sitting on a dead snag half a mile away through the rain.  Not a bad find considering how tricky these birds can be!

Our drive to Savegre Lodge was marked by an early start, a stop at the Aerial Tram and Butterfly Garden and a rather long day.

The stop at the Butterfly Gardens was a productive stop considering that we saw only a couple species of Hummers. Violet-headed made up most of the birds we saw. Rufous-tailed made up the rest.
The lack of Hummers was more than made up for by the flight of raptors that went through.  It started with a flyover Double-toothed Kite that some of us managed to get onto before it vanished over the trees.  Then, while waiting for a Lattice-tailed Trogon to come out, someone happened to look up and spotted this huge, black and white bird cruising slowly over, far above us.  The call went up within a matter of seconds. KING VULTURE!!!  In all, 6 of these awesome birds floated over, high above us.
Then a few people (including me) spotted a large, buteo-like raptor with broad wings and after much discussion, decided it was a Great Black-hawk.

A flock of Tanagers flew through. Mostly Olive, but also containing Golden-hooded among others. A Scarlet-thighed Dacnis gave quick views and our thousandth Chestnut-sided Warbler was seen (well, somewhere up there anyway...)
After deciding that we had plundered all the goodies from that section of forest, we moved on to Savegre Lodge.

Savegre Lodge turned out to be nestled at the very bottom of one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen.  The greenery was a welcome change from the drab brown I'd been seeing all winter here in the upper midwest.  The entire valley was a glittering shade of green.

Panorama stitching is courtesy of my friend Andrea over at the Earthbirds Blog

 The buildings blended well with the surroundings and the blue sky overhead was a welcome change from the grey clouds we had been seeing all week.

Even as we hopped off the bus, the birding began in earnest. This was a completely different group of species than the lowland rainforest birds we had been getting used to.  This Black-capped Flycatcher posed quite nicely for the camera.

The Hummingbirds proved to be easier to see and even a little more spectacular than the lowland Rufous-tails.  The star of the show turned out to be this White-throated Mountain-gem who appeared to be well versed in the art of posing:

Green Violetear was by far the most numerous Hummingbird and possibly the most numerous bird of the highlands. You could hear their fast, chipping call almost everywhere we went.

The best part about Savegre Lodge was the beautiful gardens on the grounds.  Words cannot fully describe them. Neither can photos, but here is my attempt at it:

I spent most of the last part of our first day at Savegre exploring the gardens with Dave, Mimi, and a few other people.  The actual number of species at the lodge wasn't even close to the diversity of the lowlands, but the quality made up for it. There were still some reminiscent species from the lowlands. The ever present Tropical Kingbird had perched himself high on a power line, and Clay-colored Thrushes still attempted to wake me up long before the designated time, but the higher-elevation, montane species took over from the rest. Flame-colored Tanagers were very vocal, Grey-breasted Wood-wren replaced it's White-breasted cousin, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers took over from Olive and Swallow-tailed Kite filled in the nearly absent spot that the Turkey Vultures once filled.
Perusing our way through the garden, a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush captured our attention as it acted much like a Robin. Hopping around on the ground out in the open and giving excellent looks:

Here in the highlands, a few extra families reside that don't show up at all in the lowlands.
The ringing, echoing, bell-like tones of Black-faced Solitaire filtered down from above like sunlight filters through the leaves of a forest. We never saw the majority of them, but fortunately, a few did give us excellent looks and one was nice enough to pose just long enough to have his portrait taken:

Hunting deeper through the gardens, someone eventually spotted one of the far cuter birds of the area.

I had taken a break and gone rock hopping down the creek, but managed to get back just in time to see and photograph this Collared Redstart. Unfortunately, he didn't pose long, but did stay long enough for everyone to get excellent looks at this awesome bird.

Back at the lodge that evening, several of us took advantage of the hummingbird feeders (something non-existent in the humid lowlands due to the extra-high maintenance they require down there)
The hummingbirds proved to be very much used to people and would let us walk right up to them without even blinking.

White-throated Mountain-gems are totally awesome aren't they? :D

Just as a comparison to how close they'd let us get, I took the following photo with my little Point & Shoot rather than my big DSLR.  Crazy eh?

Our first and only full day of birding at Savegre Lodge involved a run to the very top of the nearby Cerro de La Muerte. As one goes up in elevation in the tropics, the species diversity decreases with every 1000ft of elevation gain. Only about half a dozen species live at the top of Cerro de La Muerte. Several of them are Endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.

Sooty Thrush is one of the simplest birds to ID in the Costa Rican highlands. Simply because it is bigger and darker than anything else that can be found at the top of Cerro de La Muerte.  Although, even when seen further down the mountain, it is still unmistakeable.

Our trip to the top of the mountain targeted only a couple species because they could be found nowhere else.  Our primary search was for Volcano Junco. A bird that is restricted to a few mountain-tops in Costa Rica and Panama.  Fortunately, the search proved easy as we saw 3 within the first 15 minutes of getting off the bus. This particular individual posed quite nicely:

After some searching, we eventually found Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Large-footed Finch, Volcano Hummingbird and Timberline Wren.  Having filled out our list, we headed back to the lodge for the evening.

Our final morning at Savegre, we started with one of the most productive hikes I've ever been on.
We made excellent use of the Lodge's 4X4 vehicles as we headed to the top of the mountain in preparation to hike down.  On the way up, several of us in the first vehicle heard a Rufous-browed Peppershrike. A hidden testament to the fact that there were more birds here than we could possibly see in the alloted time.  Arriving at the top of the trail, we checked out a staked out Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl nest. Despite our repeated attempts to coerce one into showing itself, we gave up and started inspecting the other local birds. Here, at 8500ft in elevation, Golden-bellied Flycatcher replaced the Kiskadees of the lowlands.  While the group headed off chasing one of these admittedly awesome birds, I stuck it out for the Pygmy-owl.  Reverting to my 4 months of experience looking for cavity-nesting owls in Arizona, I decided to try a classic trick. I walked up and scratched the tree. Having proved it working on every cavity-nesting owl I had tried it on so far, I had high hopes for it working this time. Sure enough, curiosity got the best of the little owl and he poked his head out just long enough for me to take his portrait:

Unfortunately, even though I called to the group the moment he stuck his head out, they arrived just as he poked his head back in and, not to be outsmarted again, refused to come out. Despite all further attempts at convincing him to appear.

As we were about to head down the trail, Dave's sharp ears picked out the sound of a Silvery-throated Jay calling from somewhere nearby. Using playback with great effectiveness, Dave lured the Jay closer so we could see it. Highly intellegent, like most corvids, the jay was not easily convinced and kept his distance. Just close enough for us to see. Just barely. Eventually, he flew into the tree directly above us where we lost him. While looking for the jay, I spotted a movement at the top of a 100ft Oak.  The white belly combined with long, spotted tail and black and yellow bill left little doubt as to the family but the exact ID was a tad harder in figuring out. The weirdness of the location left me guessing for a second before it hit me.  I called to Dave "Dave, I've got a Cuckoo"  Dave just gave me a look that said "a what???" He called back "A Cuckoo???" "Yea, I've got a Cuckoo" I replied.  He came running over and we both studied the bird. After photographing and examining both the photos and the highly cooperative bird through the scope, we both reached the same conclusion. The pattern of the tail and the rather buffy coloring underneath left no doubt. It was a Mangrove Cuckoo.

It was definitely one of the rarer birds that we found during the trip. It is also my understanding that this was not only a new bird for the tour's all time list, but also a new bird for the Savegre Lodge list.
Seeing a bird that I connect with the lowland swampy forests of southern Florida so far from it's regular habitat at the top of an oak halfway up a mountain was, while wacky, pretty awesome!  It was the last new bird for the trip that we actually saw (we heard Buffy Tuftedcheek on the way down).

In all, it was a completely awesome 8 days in Costa Rica with an awesome group and awesome guides!
Many thanks to Dave and Mimi for putting up with my nearly constant questions!

The rest of my photos from the trip can be found at:

Would I go back? of course! In a second!!

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