Thursday, 29th January 2004

Port of call - Puntarenas on the Pacific coast
Time ashore: about 8 hours

Princess Cruise Excursion: Rainforest Skywalk and Pura Vida Botanical Gardens


While the ship was coming in to dock along the long narrow jetty at Puntarenas, we again saw the usual species: Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans soaring overhead in large kettles; Royal and Sandwich Terns and Laughing Gulls roosting on the metal structure of the jetty; and the Mangrove Swallows, first seen during the Panama Canal transit, wheeling around the ship at water level and proving impossible to photograph!

Our large tour group was divided up into 3 smaller groups of about 18 people, and at 9:15 am we were loaded onto minibuses for the one and a half hour journey to the Skywalk. On our way out of Puntarenas, we noted Rock Pigeons, then our guide had the bus stop briefly by a lagoon to look at some Wood Storks, a Roseate Spoonbill and a Great Egret.  En route through the countryside we also saw: Osprey, Neotropic Cormorant, Black and Turkey Vultures, Great-tailed Grackles, Tropical Kingbirds and a Gray Hawk. Our driver spotted the hawk and pulled over for everyone to see it in a roadside tree. 

Travelling southeast from Puntarenas, we crossed the famous Tarcoles River Bridge, a tourist spot where people come to view the crocodiles, (more info and photos beow) and a few minutes later we passed the entrance to the Carara National Park.  At 10:30 am we pulled into the Villa Lapas for refreshments and bathrooms. The gardens here were lovely, but we only had about 20 minutes to explore and look for birds  I had hoped to see hummingbirds, but there were none at the group of feeders. We did see a few other bird species - some well known and two lifers: Great Kiskadee, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-winged Dove, Rufous-naped Wren* and Yellow-throated Euphonia* (the lifers). High overhead there were swifts and in the shrubs a couple of hummingbirds flitted around, but frustratingly, we had to leave before we had time to identify them.
We drove up the hill from Villa Lapas to be dropped off at the Rainforest Skywalk - beginning at about 1200 feet above sea level.  The route went down through the rainforest and crossed a series of 7 suspension bridges, as the trail switched back side to side across a small valley.  By now it was about 11 am, sunny and quite hot and definitely not the best time to find birds, but we had a good time looking at all the other fascinating things!  Our guide was very knowledgeable on the natural history of the area and our first encounter was with a small boa constrictor, which was slithering along the handrail on the side of the trail.  He decided it would be best to move it off into the trees, as one of our party did not like snakes!  We could hear and briefly see the odd hummingbird feeding on a pink flowering vine, but it was not possible to get a good enough look for an ID, though our guide said they were probably Brown Violet-ears and Rufous-tailed.  (Good excuse to plan a speciality birding trip to Costa Rica in the future!).  The best sighting of the morning was a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan* which was preening itself in the deep shade of a tree and could only be seen from one of the suspension bridges.  We were able to have a great look at it, but it was difficult to get photos due to the poor light and the fact that the bridge was swinging so much with 15 people on it!  (See photo below).  A little further on, our guide pointed out a family group of white-faced capucin monkeys up in the trees, then we saw a woodcreeper scuttling up a tree. With the aid of several photos we later identified it as a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper*.  [Another group saw a Violaceous Trogon from one of the suspension bridges and also Scarlet Macaws]

We were hoping to see the beautiful Scarlet Macaws while on this excursion, and frustratingly we had heard their raucous calls as they flew overhead, but the trees were too thick for us to see them!  Flyovers, we did see: 2 Wood Storks and several Turkey and Black Vultures.  At the end of the walk we were met by our driver and minibus and we spent a few minutes watching a Jesus Christ Lizard (also known as the basilisk lizard) taking a siesta on a tree trunk, before heading up the hill to the gardens.  On the way we had another good look at a Gray Hawk in a roadside tree (photo below left) and also a Black-cowled Oriole*, a species we thought we'd seen while going through the Panama Canal, but not well enough to call it a lifer - now we could!
Our lunch was provided by the restaurant at the Pura Vida Botanical Gardens, a beautiful place right on the top of a ridge, with great views over the surrounding forested mountains and back down to Puntarenas.  On arrival we were greeted by 2 Red-lored Parrots, which had been rehabilitated and could no longer fly, and were therefore very photogenic.  We had first seen this species while passing through the Panama Canal, but at a distance, so now it was nice to see them "up close and personal"!  After lunch we were treated to more close up views and photo ops - this time a Keel-billed Toucan*, which had also been rehabilitated at the Gardens, but after release it kept returning - apparently knew it was on to a good thing and came in every day for free handouts of food! 
After lunch we were given about 45 minutes to explore the gardens, which of course wasn't long enough!  We walked along the top of the ridge and found a pair of Groove-billed Anis deep in the middle of some bougainvillea.  After a few minutes they did move out into the open, allowing me to get a few photos.  However, the rest of the group, including my husband, had walked further along and were fortunate to see a King Vulture* soaring out over the valley beyond the gardens.  Having missed this lifer, I was pleased to see a tiny hummingbird perched high in a tree, and later identified it from my photos, as a Scintillant Hummingbird*.  It had the jizz of a Selasphorus hummer, like the Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds here in the USA and when I later checked the field guide I found that it did belong to that genus,  it was Selasphorus scintilla!  We then moved down into an area with mature trees and beautiful ornamental plants, such as the Heliconia.  Our guide, Minor, did a great job pointing out the birds, including a couple more lifers:- the common Blue-gray Tanager* and a large, unusual hummingbird, the White-tipped Sicklebill* which he found roosting deep under the large leaves of an ornamental banana.  Our guide had called it one of the hermits, when he saw it's decurved bill, but later when I was checking the field guide and my photos, I identified this hummer as a sicklebill.  It had a streaked pattern on the breast and much more strongly decurved bill than a hermit - a specialisation for feeding from the Heliconia's decurved corollas.  Once again my photos had helped, even though they were rather poor quality (see above left), due to the deep shade under the plants.  With a digital camera it certainly pays to photograph everything!

When we left the Pura Vida Gardens our guide asked if we would all like to take a detour on the way back to try and locate the Scarlet Macaws.  We visited 2 sites where they are often seen, but by now it was mid-afternoon and they were obviously off somewhere taking a siesta!  However, we did get a better look at a Rufous-naped Wren and a Yellow-headed Caracara, plus an Inca Dove, Ruddy Ground-dove*, Tropical Kingbird and Baltimore Oriole.
Our next stop was at the Tarcoles River Bridge to see the crocodiles and any bird life that might be there.  The road was very busy and we had to be careful walking along the parapet, as there was no sidewalk.  The crocodiles were big and numerous and lounged in the middle of the river below the bridge, as if waiting for lunch to fall in!  Surprisingly there were quite a few birds in the river, some quite close to the crocs - 2 brave (or stupid) Great Blue Herons and further away, Great Egret, Snowy Egret and 2 Black-winged Stilts.  Across the bridge, there was a shop and café where we saw Great-tailed Grackles, a Baltimore Oriole and then a surprise sighting of the day when we found a hummingbird feeding on ants along the floorboards sticking out of the side of a buildings.  I was able to get a couple of quick photos - one of them quite good, and it helped me to identify it as a female Green-breasted Mango* (below right).
Species list:
Magnificent Frigatebird
Neotropic Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Snowy Egret
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Roseate Spoonbill
Wood Stork
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture*
Gray Hawk
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
Black-necked Stilt
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Rock Dove
White-winged Dove
Inca Dove
Ruddy Ground-dove*
Red-lored Parrot
Groove-billed Ani
White-tipped Sicklebill*
Green-breasted Mango*
Scintillant Hummingbird*
Keel-billed Toucan*
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan*
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper*
Tropical Kingbird
Great Kiskadee
Rufous-naped Wren*
Mangrove Swallow
Blue-gray Tanager*
Yellow-throated Euphonia*
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Black-cowled Oriole*
Great-tailed Grackle

40 species with 11 lifers for me
and 12 lifers for my husband!
Birding from a cruise ship - Jan/Feb 2004
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© 2004 Helen Baines
Text ~ Helen Baines
Photography ~ John and Helen Baines
Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Storks photographed from the bus on our way out of Puntarenas.
Photographed at Villa Lapas, this image was so dark, that I thought I'd never find out what it was!  Using photo editing software, it was possible to lighten it enough to see the  field marks identifying it as a Yellow-throated Euphonia.
Crossing the Tarcoles Bridge
Great Kiskadee seen in the Villa Lapas Gardens
Above: the gardens at Villa Lapas
Left: pair of Rufous-naped Wrens
Above left: our party on a Skywalk suspension bridge
Above right: the small boa constrictor being helped off the handrail!
Left: the best photo we got of the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Below: White-faced Capucin Monkey
The Gray Hawk, spotted by our bus driver
The author having fun on a Skywalk bridge
The view before we began the descent on the Skywalk suspension bridges
The Jesus Christ Lizard, taking a siesta.  It is normally seen running  across water
A rehabilitated Keel-billed Toucan at Pura Vida Gardens
A couple of tame Red-lored Parrots at Pura Vida Gardens
White-tipped Sicklebill, a species of hummingbird with a strongly decurved bill, enabling it to feed from the Heliconia flowers above.
One of the walks through Pura Vida Botanical Gardens
Groove-billed Ani
The crocodiles viewed from the Tarcoles Bridge
The Tarcoles River
On the last leg of the drive back to Puntarenas, we saw a Crested Caracara and more of the common doves on power lines: Inca, White-winged and Ruddy Ground-doves. And to finish off the day we photographed Sandwich Terns (above left) along the jetty and beach in the late afternoon sun.  All in all, a wonderful day with 11 lifers for me and 12 for my husband. Perhaps I'll get that King Vulture on our next visit to Costa Rica!
Female Green-breasted Mango
Sandwich Tern in the evening sunlight
Top: our tour bus guide and driver
Above: another shot of the sunset
Blue-gray Tanager at Pura Vida Gardens
Great Blue Heron feeding very close to the crocodiles on the Tarcoles River
Top: A beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Nicoya while we waited to sail from Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica
Above: Regal Princess at Puntarenas in the late afternoon