Costa Rica, Arenal – January 2016

The national bird – Clay-coloured Thrush

It was around a six hour drive from Tortuguero to Arenal. The volcano was shrouded in cloud when we arrived. A Great Kiskadee was the first bird to be identified here, the larger of a group of near identical looking flycatchers. Next was a female Great Curassow, a kind of large pheasant. A number of House Geckos were in the rafters of our accomodation and Rufous-collared Sparrows, Clay-coloured Thrushes and another Great Kiskadee were in the grounds. A hike uphill in to the rainforest to set up camera traps was the first thing to do, and the now familiar cry of the Howler Monkey could be heard.

Passerini’s Tanager

At dawn, a group of around 8 Great Curassow were seen foraging. We headed off towards the Nicaraguan border to explore the Rio Frio in Caño Negro. Stopping along the way we saw the unmistakeable black and crimson Passerini’s Tanager, more kiskadees and a pair of Palm Tanager. A jet black Variegated Squirrel made a brief appearance, followed by a Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Clay-coloured Thrush, Buff-throated Saltator and Blue-grey Tanagers.


It was still early when we reached the Rio Frio, with passports in case we were challenged by Nicaraguan border patrols. No sign of them, but there was plenty of wildlife. The now familiar Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Great Blue Heron were both fishing on the side of the river, with a large Caiman close by. More herons and Anhingas followed, then a Wood Stork was spotted overhead in a tree. A Green Heron was stalking along a fallen tree, of which there were many, most with at least one basilisk basking on them. A Grey-throated Wood Rail emerged from the darkness of the gallery forest and came down to the waterline, then the first of many Amazon Kingfishers zoomed past. A Little Blue Heron was also searching for fish, and further downriver a Meso-American Slider basked on a log. The next heron was one I’d seen in Britain before – a Black-crowned Night Heron, but this one offered much better views.

Crested Caracara

A Sungrebe meandered through fallen twiggage on the waters edge, and then a small gap in the foliage above offered a brief glimpse of a bird I very much hoped to see – the Boat-billed Heron. Whilst looking at some relaxed Double-crested Basilisks on various branches sticking out of the water, a gang of White-faced Capuchins walked along the river bank on the ground, whereupon some of the basilisks demonstrated why they’re called ‘Jesus Christ Lizards’, skimming across the water surface at speed before eventually succumbing to gravity and sinking below. Amazon Kingfishers became a fairly frequent site, as did Mangrove Swallows flying up and down the river. Watching a solitary Limpkin, we were interrupted by the arrival of some Mantled Howler Monkeys which seemed to make the Capuchins move along. A Neotropic Cormorant, very similar to our own Great Cormorant, some more iguanas and basilisks, then a Ringed Kingfisher were spotted perching high above, followed by an American White Ibis. I have a particular interest in the European Nightjar, and while I knew there were many nightjars, nighthawks and frogmouths in Costa Rica, I didn’t expect to see any, so I was really excited to see a pair of roosting Short-tailed Nighthawks in the canopy above, lying lengthways along a branch, just like the nightjars back home. More herons and kingfishers, and then possibly the best of the day, and another cryptic crepuscular bird. Close inspection of a snapped tree trunk revealed a Common Potoo, mimicking the trunk on which it was perched, head pointing skywards to enhance the camouflage, keeping careful watch through almost closed eyes. They have a couple of small ‘wrinkles’ in the eyelid that enables a small field of vision even through closed eyes. By this point, temperature, humidity or a combination of both had forced my teleconverter to literally fall apart, so I was restricted to shooting at 300mm, but still managed to get some quite nice shots of the Potoo whilst being completely marauded by flying biting insects, but it was more than worth it! A Great Egret and more Brazilian Long-nosed Bats were next, and then a roosting Lesser Nighthawk! Roosting relatively low and in reasonable light, even at 300mm it was possible to take some decent shots of this bird. A Yellow-crowned Night Heron gave close, if not unobstructed, views. Spotted Sandpipers and more Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers, and then a Crested Caracara perched high above, followed by face to face views of a large Caiman. A Three-toed Sloth was hanging motionless high above.

Heading back, more Clay-coloured Thrushes, Palm Tanagers, Tennessee Warbler, House Sparrow, Great Kiskadee, Baltimore Oriole, Blue-grey Tanager and a Green-breasted Mango hummingbird were seen.

Palm Tanager

Back at the accomodation more tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers, then a Black-cowled Oriole, a Ruddy Ground Dove and more Great Curassows. A White-nosed Coati appeared from the undergrowth, an old solitary male of an otherwise very social species. A night-time explore yielded yet another member of the nightjar family, as a number of Common Pauraque were seen. Their technique for hunting appeared to be to sit on the ground waiting for invertebrates to pass low overhead, when the Pauraque would then hop a couple of feet up to take them.

The next day was spent exploring the rainforest surrounding Arenal Volcano. Setting off before first light, the first birds of the day were Rufous-collared Sparrow and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. New birds continued to be seen at a quick rate – White-throated Thrush, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Gartered Trogon, Buff-rumped Warbler, then a large party of White-nosed Coati appeared, passing us by as if we weren’t even there. Unfortunately it was still too dark to take photos of them. The birds kept on coming… Olive-backed Euphonia, Spotted Antbird, Green Honeycreeper with occasional reptilian and mammalian interruptions, such as Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, Red-tailed Squirrel and the amazing Eyelash Pit Viper. More birds – Broad-billed Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Carmiol’s Tanager, Black-throated Trogon and a well camouflaged and entirely still Helmeted Iguana.

Later that day more familiar tanagers, sparrows and hummingbirds, then a migratory Summer Tanager, pure red, made a couple of appearances.

Arenal Volcano

A walk on to the most recent lava flow took us in to a very different habitat, given that the primary forest was completely destroyed by the eruption. A Pacific Screech Owl was the first bird of note, then a Boat-billed Flycatcher, Montezuma Oropendola, Brown Jay and some Central American Whiptail lizards were often seen scuttling under rocks.

By this point, I’d finally managed to scrape together the tools needed to try to re-assemble my teleconverter, and with a bit of luck, would be able to reach 600mm again. The final new birds seen in the Arenal region were White-lined Tanagers and Golden-hooded Tanagers. The final thing to do was to collect the camera traps from the rainforest, before getting ready leave the next day for another relocation.