I had long promised myself that I would make the trip to Barbilla National Park. It’s located quite close by because it’s just about an hour’s drive from Turrialba via Siquirres to the dirt-road turn-off. It’s another hour, however, to negotiate the 17 km of stony dirt road, and I was glad not to have to attempt it in my own rickety 2-wheel drive Ford. I was with Fabrice in a very nice Toyota RAV and most grateful to get the chance to see the famed park. In one of the wettest areas in the country, we had not a drop of rain.
I never did, technically, get into the park. Few people do, and it seems not even the park guards go in there very much. The buildings of the headquarters serve rather as a wonderful gathering place for environmental and related seminars. You can, if you are so bold, hike the only trail in the park and get over to Grano de Oro on the Rio Tuis side of the mountains but it takes some 19 hours, so I’m told. The great thing about the park is that it has just the one trail and so is in pristine condition. The great difficulty is that you can’t go in without a guide, usually one of the park guards. My own view of this is that I don’t feel comfortable spending twenty minutes peering into a bush while someone is waiting for me to move on, so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get into the park proper.
Don’t be deterred, however. The birding is fantastic in the approach down to the Rio Tigre that forms the park boundary. It’s probably about a thirty-minute hike if you walk without stopping, and then you reach the river and the trail just ends. You need a guide to cross the river (downstream to the left), cross and recross again and then see a sign that tells you it’s the park. I never saw the sign of course, but it was an exhilarating sensation to be at the doors of the park and alone.
I didn’t know it but I shouldn’t have been alone and they soon sent someone out to kindly retrieve me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The drive up to Barbilla was at dusk. The road affords beautiful vistas, including one great view of the waters of the Caribbean, but the second part of the drive was in the dark. Occasional small houses are by the roadside and the local population seem mainly to be Cabécar. The road was full of Common pauraques (Nyctidromus albicollis), four at a time at one spot, but the first nightjar we saw was very brown and had very little white in the edges of the tail. Identification of nightjars is really difficult for all but the very expert, unless of course you can hear them call. I usually just see them jump up from the side of the road and assume they’re Nyctidromus albicollis. That’s why I have no other nightjar on my Costa Rican list! Help!
We arrived to find Alejandra finishing her slide presentation to the motley group, assembled from various Tico environmental organisations. It really was a privilege to get to meet so many people committed to a worthwhile cause. And they gave me supper too! The night walk that followed was a little disorganised and yielded just a couple of frogs. These were of great interest to the radical few, to Carlos from Bajos del Tigre, for example, who is hoping to open a serpentarium.
Birding began the next morning, and we put up nets for the banding demonstration. First talk was of a White hawk (Leucopternis albicollis) that had appeared in the late afternoon of the day before, but unfortunately it never did show up again. The headquarters is fronted by lots of beautiful yellow San Antonio vines and then behind the buildings is a terrific view over to the park itself, solid forest with a stretch of semi-open country in front. The nearest trees were chock full of Rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus), headed east and south, I suppose. The males that give the species its English name are a striking sight and are well-named degollado (throat cut) in Mexico, for example. Perhaps you are supposed to inspect all females and juveniles to see if one of them might be a Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus), but that species is really only accidental in Costa Rica. There were also large numbers of Summer tanagers, Red-eyed vireos and, in particular, Swainson’s thrushes. These appeared even in the areas of sparser vegetation because they were so numerous. Among them were some Gray-cheeked thrushes, as revealed when one of these was caught in the nets, and I was happy to see corroborated my identification of that species at CATIE the day before. Strangely, there were no warblers at all at first, and only late in the day did I pick up a Yellow warbler and a couple of Chestnut-sideds.
The Short-billed pigeon (Patagioenas nigrirostris) is a bird that I don’t see at home and that seems to be the commonest member of its family here, while the parrots and parakeets (all fly-bys) were Mealy parrots (Amazona farinosa) and the seemingly ubiquitous Crimson-fronted parakeet (Aratinga finschi). I saw just two different woodpecker species at Barbilla. The Black-cheeked (Melanerpes pucherani) was everywhere, but I also got close-up views of the Lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus), which has so far not appeared in San Antonio. Flycatchers were numerous and I made progress with this difficult group by getting good close-up looks at pewees (Tropical and Eastern wood-pewee), and an Olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi). The resident Tropical pewee (Contupus cinereus) has a definitely yellowish belly and it calls quite frequently, clinching the identification, but until today I had not been able to identify the tight-mouthed migrant Western and Eastern wood-pewees. Luckily, an Eastern (Contupus virens) hung around pretty much permanently and revealed its identity by calling frequently. That’s my first positive identification of this bird in Costa Rica. Another great success with flycatchers was Alejandra’s identification of an Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), freshly arrived from Canada perhaps. Identification was possible only after close inspection and banding, but that meant a life species for me. However, not even Ale ventures to separate safely the Alder and the Willow flycatchers, and in Costa Rica, as Richard Garrigues points out in his indispensable guide, you can only be sure that it’s a Willow flycatcher (Empidonax trailli) from December to February, when the Alder (alnorum) is simply not here.
My escape down to the river down a steep and muddy slope passed through thick forest where manakins and such came repeatedly within a few feet and yet remained maddeningly out of sight. A family of Tawny-crested tanagers (Tachyphonus delattrii) were both loud and visible, and that’s a bird that I’m not very familiar with because it has not shown up at San Antonio for me yet. The Olive tanager (Chlorothraupis carmioli) is said to hang out with the Tawny-crested, but not today. That very common species (so they say!) is still not on my life-list.
My stay at the river was brief and birdless, but I was happy to find that I managed the climb back up, accompanied by Carlos of the snakes, without any distress to my thrombosis-ridden leg. Carlos identified the calls of a pair of Broad-billed motmots (Electron platyrhynchum) but they too remained hidden in the thick vegetation. As soon as you emerge from the forest, the three common toucan species appear: Chestnut-mandibled (Ramphastos swainsonii), Keel-billed (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and the Collared araçari (with a soft ‘c’ please!) (Pteroglossus torquatus).
The final noteworthy birds of the day, cut short because the seminar was over and Fabrice had to head home, were a Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), a calling pygmy-owl (we think), and an Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna). The appearance of the meadowlark, right next to the headquarters, shows how sudden the border is between the forest and what is now cattle pasture. We couldn’t see the pygmy-owl, despite its persistent call in broad daylight, but a distant black-and-white bird perched at the forest edge atop a tall bare tree was surely some species of raptor. It was simply too distant a view to permit anything but speculation and so my list of Costa Rican raptors remains embarrasingly short. Patrick O’Donnell’s wonderful blog (http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress/) explains why raptors are so hard to find in Costa Rica.
And now for the Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). I confess right off that I have never seen this bird, before today. I lived in the western United States for many years, where it is found sporadically at best. I hope, then, that I’m not in error and can add another bird to my life list. Summer tanagers were everywhere, but this bird had very dark, almost black wings with no wing-bars and a light-coloured bill. I think that makes it a non-breeding adult and excludes both the female Summer tanager (Piranga rubra), the Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), and the Hepatic tanager (Piranga flava). I welcome any comments that may confirm my hypothesis.
I was a lucky boy to get to participate in the event at Barbilla not only because of the birds but also because of the invaluable contacts with the many dedicated people that I met. Food and drink for the seminar participants were plentiful and delicious.
I have a standing invitation to return, sleeping for free but bringing my own food, for up to two weeks. I think the park guards are really lonely guys. Sleeping accomodation is rough but quite adequate (foam mattress on the floor and you bring a sleeping bag and pillow). The first thing I’ll take the next time will be our little camera, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to add some photos from this brief but exciting trip, courtesy of some of Fabrice and Ale’s colleagues.