Tag: Costa Rica (Page 1 of 2)

Costa Rica (2019) #8: Above and around Savegre Hotel

Always bring (extra) binoculars

Birding the trails above and around Savegre Hotel

It certainly isn’t ideal to recount incredible days of birding more than 2 years after they happened. But it has been a delight to revisit our trip to Costa Rica, and to drag it out over these many months of varying degrees of isolation. As I’ve mentioend, there are amazing birds on the grounds of the Savegre hotel itself. And the Resplendent Quetzal is just a short drive up the road. But that’s just a part of the astounding birding in the Savegre River valley. The miles of trails above and around the Savegre Hotel are not to be missed. I mean, did you know there is a kind of bird called a chlorosphingus? And that it used to be called a bush tanager, but is now thought to be a brush finch? Buckle up, because there are many more long bird names ahead.

The first morning in Savegre Valley my son and I headed up the trails above the lodge. I thought this was the way to the quetzal. But it wasn’t. It nevertheless was good birding. The trail starts as a road, and the hill is a bit steep heading up from the hotel. But it’s not far until a trial or two branches off the road into the forest. We took the first offramp, for the Canto de Aves trail, which loops back to the road. From there, we explored a bit of the Quebrada trail, but didn’t do the whole loop. Each are magical trails full of birds. As everywhere else in Costa Rica, there were lifers around every curve. We saw a Spangle-cheeked Tanager and a Black-cheeked Warbler, a Flame-throated Warbler and a Black-capped Flycatcher. Yellow-thighed Brushfinches worked the edges of the trail. Our best find of the hike, the relatively short-named Highland Tinamou, rumbled through the brush down a steep slope. It evaded being photographed, but I got good looks through the binoculars.

The Quebrada Trail’s beauty brought my wife to tears

Later that afternoon, we took a family hike down the Sendero Catarata (waterfall trail). This trail leads from the hotel downstream. It’s a great, level hike with a cool bridge and a rewarding waterfall. The boys climbed a cliff covered in vines. And, of course, more birds. I added 5 lifers on this hike, including Mountain Elaenia, Yellowish Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush (I told you the names were long!) and Yellow-bellied Siskin. I even got my first ever photograph of, and only my second ever look at, a Golden-winged Warbler.

Root climbing along the Sendero Catarata

We went back to the trails above the lodge the next day, this time as a full family hike. The highlights included the Northern Emerald-Toucanet, and tracking down a  Collared Trogon. We heard the trogon calling from the forest along the trail, but couldn’t find it. One of us walked down the windy trail until he was sure he was past the bird. I walked the other way until I was sure I was past it. Then, our sharp-eyed 12 year old searched in the middle and, as he always does, found the bird. It took nearly 15 minutes to get eyes on the bird. It always amazes me how birds can call out repeatedly, from 10-20 yards away, and remain hidden. In the thick forest, moving just a foot or two left or right can reveal, or obscure, a bird perched in the canopy.

All around the hotel, the trails are great. In a couple of places, you come across suspension bridges like this one. Not only are they thrilling to walk across, they put you at the top of the canopy, for clearer views of birds you otherwise strain your neck to see. 

Collared Redstart Suenos del Bosque Costa Rica

An up-close encounter on the bridge with a Collared Redstart

If you ever make it to San Gerardo de Dota and the Savegre River Valley, allocate 2-3 nights to allow yourself to take it all in and a proper pace. And if you are into fishing, or eating delicious trout, this spot is world-famous for that, too.

Yellow-winged Vireo Savegre Lodge Costa Rica

Yellow-winged Vireo

Costa Rica (2019) #7: The Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

Having pleased the morning crowd, a male Resplendent Quetzal flies away

The Resplendent Quetzal is Truly Sumptuous

A trip to Costa Rica gives a birder the chance to see one of the most spectacular birds on Earth: the Resplendent Quetzal. It is, indeed, a mythical bird. The plumed serpent God Quetzalcoatl of Mesoamerica, who helped create Earth, was said to wear the long tail feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal. A Guatemalan legend has it that when the Quiche Maya warrior prince Tecun Uman was injured in battle against Spanish conquistadors, a Resplendent Quetzal flew down and dipped his chest in the warrior’s blood. It is the national bird of Guatemala, which named its currency the quetzal. On top of its legendary status, it is a jaw-dropping combination of red, green, and blue, with a golden crest and ridiculous tail feathers.

A Resplendent Quetzal at the center of the Guatemala flag

So there was no doubt that we’d head to the central highlands–the money spot in Costa Rica for Resplendent Quetzal–to try and see one. As I described in a previous post, we reserved lodging for a few nights at the Savegre Hotel. You can hire guides to take you at sunrise to the spots where Resplendent Quetzals are being seen. Or, if you’re like me and generally frown on paying for guides, you can ask around for tips and directions and try to find it yourself. Half the fun, after all, is the hunt.

So I asked around for tips and directions.  On the first morning, I took my son and I to the wrong place. We walked up the road behind the hotel instead of driving up the road out of the valley.  That mistake produced 6 lifers, so it wasn’t a total bust. The second day, up again at dawn, we went to the right place, but missed the quetzals by 15 minutes. It was on our third morning–this time to the right place and at the right time, and best of all with the whole family–that we were rewarded with a male-female pair of Resplendent Quetzals.

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

We had obscured, but tantalizing, views at first

The quetzals typically fly in just after dawn, feed on the fruit of their favorite avocado trees, and then take off out of sight. They apparently frequent the same spot for a few days at a time, until they’ve eaten all the avocados. The current spot was, as it was described to me, “cerca de una casita” at a bend in the road. Some important follow-up questions after our first day failure made it clear that the casita was just past the Trogon Lodge. With confidence that we had the spot and a good chance that we’d find a quetzal (or at least find all the birders hoping to find a quetzal), the whole family was in for our third attempt.

We rose 30 minutes before sunrise (which in January in Costa Rica is 5am), grabbed bananas and snacks, and were on the road. When we got to the spot, there were a few cars already parked. The birders were standing around in a way that made it clear the quetzals hadn’t arrived yet. There were a half-dozen local guides with their paying customers (not all of whom I’d describe as birders). 

As we waited, I heard a faint but repeated hoot  across the valley. A couple of guides  heard it, too, and said it was the Resplendent Quetzal. As word spread, a quiet excitement took over the crowd. Then, a minute later, a pair of Resplendent Quetzals flew in. They came from across the valley. And it was a beautiful arrival. The male dragged his tail across the road and into the trees, where he moved about feeding. While he did, the female perched on electrical wires along the road. The male was a good distance off, but the views were still amazing. 

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

So resplendent – photo by my son

I enjoy photographing birds in addition to finding and studying their behavior. Before I was able to get a good shot of the male quetzal, my oldest son asked if he could have the camera. I selfishly hesitated for a second, but then happily handed over the camera. Not wanting to miss out, my youngest son asked for the camera too. It was a birder Dad dream scenario. My oldest son took the great shot above showing the crest, yellow bill, metallic green chest, red belly, the white undertail feathers, and the long blue-green tail feathers that males grow for breeding. I couldn’t have done better myself.

As I mentioned, we were fortunate to see a pair of Resplendent Quetzals. The female, like most bird species, doesn’t bother with showy appearance. She lacks the crest and green head, and doesn’t have a red belly or grow long tail feathers. But no one would describe her as plain. I found her subdued color scheme no less spectacular than the male.

The Resplendent Quetzal is one of 6 quetzal species on Earth (some think that Resplendent Quetzal should be split into 2 species). They are members of the trogon family, often colorful birds that love fruit (and, therefore, love the tropics). They range from southern Mexico to Panama. In a story told over and over again, habitat loss has their numbers decreasing. The best part about finding the Resplendent Quetzal was that the whole family was there. It’s not easy to rise in darkness, but the payoff on this day was tremendous. It was a memory we’ll all treasure for a long time.

Selfie with quetzal in background (somewhere)

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