Our cruise ship stop in Costa Rica (Jan 04)

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, 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 species  some well known birds and one lifer: Great Kiskadee, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-winged Dove and Yellow-throated Euphonia*. 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! 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, were 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 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 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!

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 rehabbed at the Gardens, but had been released when it's injuries were healed. It apparently knew it was on to a good thing and came in every day for free handouts of food!

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 some decent 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 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 was a Selasphorus  S. 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, 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 good 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 crocs 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 a female Green-breasted Mango*.

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 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!

40 species with 11 lifers (for me)

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

Helen Baines 2004