Maquenque macaws

I never really believed that I would ever see the Great green macaw in the wild, but, on the Maquenque Bird Count, not only did I get a close-up look at a pair of these beautiful creatures, but I was also able to see a pair of the equally spectacular Scarlet macaws, just an hour or two later.  The Scarlet macaw, it seems, is now successfully repopulating areas of Costa Rica from which it had long since disappeared, while the Great green, although still pitifully few in number, is prospering in its former haunts, thanks in some part to the efforts of local land-owners and conservationists.

What a wise decision I made in signing up for the Maquenque Bird Count, which took place on Saturday, 9th January 2010 but then carried over into the Sunday morning.  The count was organised by Andrew Rothman of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group, and the very large area that comprises, I believe, part of the Costa Rican Bird Route (Ruta de Aves de Costa Rica). My prior knowledge of Maquenque was nil, and all I knew about the area at all had been gleaned from cursory visits to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and the famous La Selva Biological Station.

Since Turrialba is located a good three hours’ drive from the count area, Andrew very kindly arranged for me to stay Friday  night at the Finca Bosque Tropical del Toro, before birding the next day.  This large finca, containing large tracts of forest, is located on the Río Toro close to two small hamlets, La Unión del Toro (in  La Virgen de Sarapiquí) and La Delia, about 35 km north of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.  On the National Geographic map of Costa Rica, you will see the Río Toro, which flows into the Río San Juan, and a village called Golfito, which is also fairly close to the count area, but is located south of the bridge over the Río Toro.  Take care with the maps because some mark La Unión as Golfito.  I´m not sure if the National Geographic map is correct.

I called off briefly at La Selva on Friday afternoon and was rewarded with my first-ever view, and at very close quarters, of a Rufous-tailed jacamar.  And yes, just as Garrigues & Dean say, it looks exactly like an oversized hummingbird.

The owner of Finca Bosque Tropical del Toro, Guido Quesada, together with top-notch birder Gustavo Flores, met me in the centre of Puerto Viejo at the restaurant Mi Lindo Sarapiquí, recommendable for its inexpensive but good food, plus free internet use.  Both of these young men live in Heredia and had driven from the Central Valley, hence their somewhat late arrival, ‘hora tica’.  We drove in the night along a bumpy and puddled dirt road for an hour or so until we reached Guido’s place.  I simply followed their tail lights.  The road was almost entirely flat and passed through a few small and rather poor communities.  I was eager to see the road, which I’m sure gives access to excellent birding at many points, but I had to wait until the return trip on Sunday.  Guido was a very gracious host, but there was a small nocturnal surprise because we had to get across the river to the large cabin he had prepared for us.  To cross, you step into a kind of wooden basket that holds two people at most and then you pull on a rope and pulley system and off you go, swinging high over the rushing waters of the Río Toro.  Quite exciting, and a nice finale before a beautiful night’s sleep protected by mosquito nets.

We awoke to the soothing sounds of howler monkeys and  a grey, but almost rain-free morning.  Thus began a wonderful day’s birding punctuated by substantial and tasty Tico meals at the local soda, El Palenque de Dina y Memo.  The soda has the added advantage of heliconias that intrude into the eating area and are buzzed regularly by hummingbirds, mostly hermits it seems.  The day extended into two because we had the opportunity also to cover the neighbouring Finca Paniagua, courtesy of its colourful owner, Oscar Paniagua.  Don Oscar very kindly invited me to a relaxing evening of good food, drink and conversation at the nearby house of his friend, don José.  I slept the night there in the midst of total darkness and silence before rejoining Guido and Gustavo the next morning to continue the count.  Paniaguita’s finca is blessed with some hilly terrain and really beautiful primary (?) forest, and it was here, just above the finca, that we saw the imposing King vultures.  Mud, sometimes black, sometimes red, was omnipresent, as were stupendous, epiphyte-laden trees, including the almendros that attract the Great green macaw.

The bumpy drive back to Puerto Viejo was in heavy rain, with the mud-brown rivers swollen already, but it was interesting to see the road I had first passed along at night, with its occasional hamlets, small cattle ranches and forest remnants.

For the full bird list, pass immediately to the end of the blog.  Be aware that this is simply my list of sightings and that Gustavo’s full list, prepared for purposes of the count, is rather more extensive.  I missed several species, as usual, and I much envy Gustavo not only his pinpoint-accurate recognition of bird calls, but also his magnificent Swarovski binoculars.  All photos taken on the count are his.

Although I saw several life-birds, the real highlights were the two macaws (of course),  King vulture (two adults and an immature perched at close range), Nicaraguan seed-finch, with its big pink bill,  and Red-breasted blackbird.  The latter, feeding in a rice-field next to Guido’s finca, sent Gustavo into paroxysms of delight.  Sturnella militaris, he pronounced with glee.  Ah yes, now I have to learn all the bird names anew, this time in Latin.  Other real beauties were the three trogons, the Long-tailed tyrant, and the Pale-billed woodpecker.

Some final notes on local conservation efforts are in order, before moving to the bird list.  Don Guido Quesada points out first and foremost that the conservation contributions of the finqueros are quite voluntary and that the principal fincas involved are Bosque Tropical del Toro, Finca Paniagua and Ceibas y Almendros de Sarapiquí.  I now quote directly from Guido, who is at once succinct and eloquent:  “Nevertheless there are quite a few others that have taken advantage of the Payment for Environmental Services [a government-established programme].  What we are trying to do basically is to conserve forest areas, to avoid hunting and to collaborate with scientific or conservationist organisations such as Ruta de Aves de Costa Rica, Asociación Ornitológica, Centro Científico Tropical, and Red Costarricense de Reservas Naturales Privadas.

We do not really know very well the favourable impact that this might have.  I believe that we act more out of conviction than because of any scientific or economic measurement of the result, but at all events we do it gladly and believe that it is something positive.  It´s what they call in the Red de Reservas ‘conservationists of the heart’.

In general the culture of the zone is to cut down as much forest as possible in order to make a ‘finca’, take out all the wood, hunt freely and have unlimited availability of resourcesThey do not believe that this is bad and consider that it is their duty and right to act this way.  It is something that we are trying to change little by little, by means of example at least.  I also have the impression that the arrival of tourists, scientists and volunteers has a fairly large influence on the conservationist culture of the community”.

Thanks to the efforts of Guido and like-minded individuals, perhaps our grandchildren will also have the opportunity to be thrilled at the sight of Great green and Scarlet macaws in this beautiful part of Costa Rica.

And now my list:

1.    Least grebe

2.    Little blue heron

3.    Great egret

4.    Cattle egret

5.    Snowy egret

6.    Green heron

7.    Black vulture

8.    Turkey vulture

9.    King vulture

10. Hook-billed kite

11.  Roadside hawk

12. Northern jaçana

13. Spotted sandpiper

14. Pale-vented pigeon

15. Red-billed pigeon

16. Short-billed pigeon

17. Ruddy ground-dove

18. Blue ground-dove

19. White-tipped dove

20. Crimson-fronted parakeet

21. Olive-throated parakeet

22. Orange-chinned parakeet

23. Brown-hooded parrot

24. White-crowned parrot

25. Great green macaw

26. Scarlet macaw

27. Red-lored parrot

28. Mealy parrot

29. Groove-billed ani

30. Common pauraque

31. Gray-rumped swift

32. Stripe-throated hermit

33. Long-billed hermit

34. Bronzy hermit

35. Rufous-tailed hummingbird

36. Violaceous trogon

37. Black-throated trogon

38. Slaty-tailed trogon

39. Rufous-tailed jacamar

40. Chestnut-mandibled toucan

41. Keel-billed toucan

42. Collared araçari

43. Black-cheeked woodpecker

44. Pale-billed woodpecker

45. Northern barred-woodcreeper

46. Plain-brown woodcreeper

47. Streak-headed woodcreeper

48. Barred antshrike

49. Great antshrike

50. Common tody-flycatcher

51. Long-tailed tyrant

52. Tropical pewee

53. Great crested flycatcher

54. Dusky-capped flycatcher

55. Boat-billed flycatcher

56. Great kiskadee

57. Social flycatcher

58. Gray-capped flycatcher

59. Tropical kingbird

60. Cinnamon becard

61. Masked tityra

62. Purple-throated fruitcrow

63. Mangrove swallow

64. Northern rough-winged swallow

65. Southern rough-winged swallow

66. Tropical gnatcatcher

67. Band-backed wren

68. House wren

69. Wood thrush

70. Clay-colored robin

71. Yellow warbler

72. Chestnut-sided warbler

73. Gray-crowned yellowthroat

74. Bananaquit

75. Red-throated ant-tanager

76. Summer tanager

77. Passerini’s tanager

78. Plain-colored tanager

79. Blue-gray tanager

80. Palm tanager

81. Thick-billed seed-finch

82. Nicaraguan seed-finch

83. Variable seedeater

84. Yellow-faced grassquit

85. Orange-billed sparrow

86. Black-striped sparrow

87. Grayish saltator

88. Buff-throated saltator

89. Red-winged blackbird

90. Red-breasted blackbird

91. Melodious blackbird

92. Great-tailed grackle

93. Bronzed cowbird

94. Giant cowbird

95. Black-cowled oriole

96. Baltimore oriole

97. Scarlet-rumped cacique

98. Yellow-billed cacique

99. Montezuma oropendola

100. Olive-backed euphonia

As I mentioned, the offical count list is considerably longer and can be found at the following link:

The omission of the Golden-hooded tanager and several other common species, such as kingfishers, is not an error.  They were amazingly absent.


2 thoughts on “Maquenque macaws

  1. Hey, Paul –
    I’m stranded from work today due to icy conditions so I was happy to see a new post on your blog. Amazing coincidence that Liz and I stayed a night at Mi Lindo Sarapiqui just before Christmas, on the 21st, I think. We arrived in Puerto Viejo at night, stepped off the bus and there it was so we stayed mostly as a matter of convenience before heading off to Heleconia Lodge, 8 km down the road. I’m not sure when you were there; your date of April 2010 for the bird count seems maybe in error?
    Another coincidence is the Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws that you saw. We saw many Scarlet Macaws at Carara while on the Pacific coast and once, when stepping out of a taxi in Puetro Viejo, binoculars in the daypack, two backlit Macaws flew by but were gone before I could get on them. Green or Scarlet – we’ll never know.
    We did see them eventually however at Amigos de las Aves, a Macaw breeder in Ajaluela, who releases them at several locations in CR. Their website is here:
    We met Richard Frisius, who is pretty old now but still sharp mentally. Michael, his nephew from California, seems to be taking up the reins to continue the program. We were given a complete tour of the place, including a walk through a large enclosure of 30-40 Green Macaws, most of which were ready to be released but for lack of funding may stay longer than would be good (there’s an ideal age for the Macaws to be released). We had supported their efforts in ’05 when we first visited CR and gave them another donation, along with some new birding vests that we never used. Maybe you could give them a plug and raise some awareness of their efforts through your blog. I’ll end some pictures if you’d like.
    Your post of the area west of Puerto Viejo is good timing for us. We enjoyed our stay at Heleconia Lodge (Rufous-tailed Jacamar from 3 meters) and were looking at what we missed, with our next trip in mind. It’s good to hear the conservation ethic that seems to be developing.
    Today would be a good day to start posting our trip report. I’ll put it in various places, including the CR bird forum and



    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comments, which Ill try to follow up on asap. Lets hope you get some more days off work without the weather getting you down. I changed the date error on the post and will soon add some photos that Gustavo took. By yet another coincidence I learned today of a Scarlet macaw breeding site near Atirro. No one has ever mentioned it to me before, but apparently I have driven right by it several times without hearing the birds. They say it can even be seen from the Atirro road which forks off just before La Suiza. Anyway, Ill investigate very soon.

      At the Maquenque count, locals said that Scarlet macaws are now well established and are seen as frequently as the Great green. A finquero told us that there is a Great green nest-site not too far away, and this has been confirmed by the Bird Route ornithologists.

      Please do send pictures from Amigos de las Aves if you have them. I can credit them on the blog and will attach the link.

      I dont know the Heliconia Lodge, but Ill check it out on the internet. My first jacamar was also a really great close-up look (on the La Selva entrance road), plus another bird the next day on the count. I marked 14 life-birds on this count, but I missed another six at least that Gustavo either saw or heard. I dont doubt any of Gustavos identifications, but I only put it on the Life List if I get a really good and convincing look. The Turrialba volcano just up the hill now has us under a Yellow Alert, as I imagine you have read, but no ash has fallen on our side so far.

      Best regards,



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