I'll Not Be Home for Christmas (Costa Rica - Part 4)

Updated: Jan 20

12/25/2021 - 12/28/2021


If you have made it here, you have made it to the end of the posts for this trip. Buckle up, it is going to be a long one. Before we dive in, a quick recap. Carmen and I decided to skip town for the holidays, again. Covid was on the rise, and instead of caving to the pressure to visit people over the holidays, we scooted out of town. Carmen started her trip a week earlier and started Spanish lessons down in the Manuel Antonio area. I joined her the following weekend and hung out; doing some birding in nearby Esquipulas or just relaxing for the day. Christmas Eve arrived, and we headed north towards our last destination. We made a quick stop at Dave and Dave's on Christmas day, and then pulled into Laguna Del Lagarto a couple hours before dinner time. That is where we will start this post.


So, I will be honest. I did not know much about Laguna Del Lagarto when I chose to stay here. I have claimed that this is our last trip to Costa Rica for a while. It is our fourth trip here. I do love visiting Costa Rica; they have set a high bar. On the other hand, I have a lot of other places I want to see, too. So, if this is "the last trip", then I do not want to leave behind any unfinished business. There is one bird that I see in pictures from Costa Rica that I have always wanted to see. It is just one of those birds that catches your attention and holds onto it. It is not a flashy bird. It is not uncommon. I still wanted to see and photograph one in Costa Rica. Yes, you can see it elsewhere. What is it? A Brown-hooded Parrot. If this is going to be my last trip, I was going to see a Brown-hooded Parrot this trip. Some research on eBird turned up Laguna Del Lagarto. I read they had feeders there setup for photography, and that the parrots were common visitors. That is all I cared about. I also read that Christmas was their busy time of year, and it was not uncommon for groups to be there and reserve the shooting areas; leaving others to fend for themselves. That is what I fretted about.


It is a bit of a rough road to get into the place. Confusingly, they greeted us (without asking our names) and then offered to show us to our rooms. No check-in. Just hello, welcome, here is the eating area, what are your food preferences, and then onto the room. Covid or otherwise, we were the only guests checking in that day, and there were only two other people already there. At the busiest point there, there were three other groups. Not the huge crush I dreaded. Rooms were pretty basic. They are about a half-step above accommodations at a research station. No air; just an oscillating fan. It was hard to get things to dry out. Food was good and prepared to your preferences. Carmen got vegetarian. I got food without onions. The breakfast eggs were a bit fishy the morning following the fish dinner. They were disgusting, but that was our only complaint. They served good food and a lot of it.


The grounds were immense, and we did not really realize what all we had available. Part of that is on us. We did not explore as much our first full day, but it rained all day. No one really explained things either. From our perspective, we had two feeder setups directly off the dining area. Other than that, it was a walk down the road. Turns out, there was another maintained feeder on the other side of the rooms. Further down from that feeder, there were kingfisher perches setup. Just inside the forest, a moth light was setup. We hardly visited any of this; not knowing it was there. I am not sure it would have mattered much. It did rain all day our first full day there. We had specific plans the second day (more on that later), and we were leaving the following day.


What did we do there? Well, the first day, I shot at the feeders a little bit before dinner time. Our first full day, I spent all day shooting at the feeders. The rain was driving birds in, and, just when I thought I had shot everything the place had to offer, a new species would show up. The lodge is really good about keeping the feeders stocked with bananas. They also switch out the props every day. Their props could use some work. They have a lot of cut branches on them, and it really distracts from the natural look of them. With some careful shooting, you could work around the issues. All in all, it was pretty terrific, and I mostly had them all to myself. Well, I did share them with the birds; including a Brown-hooded Parrot or two.


Brown-hooded Parrot was not the only parrot I saw there. Crimson-lored Parrots flew about the area, and I also spotted a White-crowned Parrot. None of them visit the feeders though, and they did not perch close enough for a decent photo. So, I was totally surprised when a pair of Orange-chinned Parakeet flew in!


Three species of toucan regularly visited the feeders. The Yellow-throated was pretty shy. The Keel-billed where characters, often dancing and calling from the perches. The Collared Aracari came in packs; acting goofy and hogging up all the bananas. I always thought they had oval eye slits, but its actually just pigmentation in the iris surrounding a round pupil. Kinda weird but neat.


There were many highlights, and it is hard to pick which ones to feature. Another favorite had to be the Chestnut-colored Woodpecker. This was a lifer. I only ever saw the female. The male would have a large red mustache. These woodpeckers are part of the wonderful Celeus family that all feature a large, beautiful crest. Check it out!


One more. The next bird actually breeds right here in my state. It is a hard bird not to love, though. Unfortunately, the bird is just as shy in Costa Rica as it is here. I was overjoyed to finally catch this bright red, male Summer Tanager up on a perch, where I could get a photo.. This guy normally skulked in from a bush and grabbed some banana bits from the ground before hurrying off again. The females and immature birds were not as shy.


What else did I see at the feeders? Three species of Honeycreeper, fives species of Tanager (including the tricky Plain-colored Tanager), Baltimore and Black-cowled Oriole, Buff-throated Saltator, Montezuma Oropendula, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Variable Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, Olive-backed and Yellow-throated Euphonia, Clay-colored Thrush, and Great Kiskadee round out the list of common visitors.

Not all the feeder birds where so colorful. The first morning, an odd one stopped by to check on the dead bananas. They must not have been dead enough, as he left without having any.

Black Vulture

More? Well, the grounds of the place were fairly busy of the mornings and evenings. Mostly, it was the Great Curassow prowling the grounds. They would also hop up on the props. It almost seemed like they would knock them down. There were a couple furry guests, too. A White-nosed Coati often stopped by looking for bananas, while the little gardener (a Central American Agouti) pranced around the edges of the area.


Later that day, we had what was probably my biggest disappointment of my stay here. Our first evening, the manager of the place talked to us and asked about our interests. I asked what they offered, and he mentioned hummingbird multiflash photography. I was shocked. I quickly mentioned that I would be interested. The two guys staying there mentioned that they even had Long-billed Hermit when they did it. This is a species I really wanted photos of. I should have known to ask questions, but I guess I wanted to believe. I knew the other guys had their own setup with them, but I did not think the lodge would offer multiflash photography if they did not have the equipment. Needless to say, we got to the location, and they did not have flashes. They had nothing other than some props and feeders. Hopes dashed, I tried to make the best of it. The area was way too dark to shoot without a flash, and we did not stay overly long before heading back. We did see quite a number of hummingbirds, though. White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Hermit, Bronzy Hermit, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Green-breasted Mango, Crowned Woodnymph, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer were all seen visiting the various feeders.

In the evenings, a crazy (you will understand in a moment) local guide would come by and offer tours. On the evening of our first full day, he came by and asked if we wanted to see an owl. We had already had some incredible luck earlier, because a pair of Short-tailed Nighthawks had come through. giving their tinkling call as they swooped around. I was pretty excited at the prospect of an owl. Crossing my fingers and hoping for something new, I followed him out in front of the building. There, I saw the one owl I have been dying to see. A beautiful Black-and-white Owl.

Black-and-white Owl

As I mentioned, this guy offers tours. What is his big tour? The caiman tour. Costa Rica hosts the Spectacled Caiman, and this guy offered a tour where you could pet them. If you do not know what a caiman is - think medium-sized alligator. I was wore out; so, I stayed behind, but Carmen went. I told her to be careful. She promised, and I had my doubts. The tour basically consisted of a walk to the bottom of the drive leading into the lodge, where it passed between two large ponds. By day, there is not much to see. In the evening, we had noted the number of glowing eyes in the water. This guy walks the group down to the ponds and starts yelling out to the caiman. He is calling them by name and giving commands - in German! Yes, German. One by one, the caiman would crawl up out of the water (I am sitting on a platform in the dining area where I can clearly hear and see what is going on) and head toward the group. They guide would command them to stop or come closer and give them treats one at a time. He would then get them positioned where the tail was facing the group and offer to let them pet the caiman, to which I heard Carmen exclaim, "No!". (Atta girl.) The tour went on for a bit as various caiman were called up, given snacks, and then left to lurk in the dark behind the group while he called another in from a different direction. Surprisingly, the whole group returned in one piece.


The next morning, I got up and did a little shooting at the feeders. This was not the main activity for the day, though. The weather had cleared, and our next activity worked out better if the sun was out and the weather warmer. In preparation, an animal head was procured and set atop a nearby hill. A short time later, the guy came back to fetch us; explaining that one had shown up. One what? Well, we were going to spend the morning photographing King Vulture! Now, I have to say, I had high hopes. That usually works out poorly. I have even seen this place on National Geographic. As we walked up to the blind, I instantly recognized the place from the show. That was the old blind though, and they had built a new one, which we went to first. When we arrived, there were two King Vultures. By the end of the day, we would have over a dozen. The experience was a bit pricey, but it was well worth the cost.

King Vulture

While not perfect, the blinds were pretty awesome. The biggest issue is that the birds are backlit if they are in full sun. It is easy to end up with a bird in harsh, mixed light. We were lucky in that we had cloud cover moving in and out throughout the morning. Carmen and I shot for a few hours. About an hour before lunch, I mentioned to Carmen that I did not think I was going to do any better on photos; so, we could leave whenever she was ready. Carmen is not a birder, but we stayed right up until lunch time. She was having that good of a time.


The vultures were not the only birds here. There were many Black Vultures roaming around. When the sun came out, they would all fan their wings to collect the heat and effectively throw up a curtain, blocking any further shooting until the sun faded again. A pair of Crested Caracara also visited. They would stealth around the edges and wait for a Black Vulture to scramble off with something "tasty"; then they would rob them of it. As for the King Vultures. They were everything I had hoped for. They are huge. They are amazingly powerful and colorful. Interestingly, they are a 3 or 4 year cycle bird; meaning it takes 3-4 years for them to develop full adult coloration - colored head and completely white back. I think we saw every stage of plumage to be seen. From one fully black individual to one that was speckled to several full adults. See what all you can pick out.


One of my other favorite pics from that morning is of a group of King Vultures. I do not know what a group of vultures is called (okay, Google says a "wake" if they are on the ground or a "committee" if they are perched), but this totally looks like a "coven" to me.

King Vulture

Happy, we returned to the lodge for lunch. Afterwards, Carmen wanted to go on a hike. I was not super thrilled, but I conceded. The trails were super muddy, and they manager warned her about snakes. I am not afraid of snakes, but I am terrified of one in particular. This is Fer de Lance territory. The rain brings the snakes out on the trail, and this snake is known for expertly hiding in leaf litter. The trails are not maintained very well, at least the ones we ended up on. We saw almost nothing on the hike. I think the highlight was one tiny Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog. After tromping through mud, lots of debris, and fallen logs over and along the trail, I was happy to be out. Carmen is assured that I am paranoid and grumpy.


That evening, we had a night walk scheduled. After dinner and after that evening's caiman tour (the night after the one above), the crazy guide came to fetch us for our night walk. For the record, the guide is super nice and really not that crazy. It just seems crazy to be yelling at caiman in German. Anyway, as we are walking down the road toward the ponds, Carmen and the guide are conversing in Spanish. I was happy to hear this; as she rarely tries to speak with native speakers. I know a little Spanish, but I was not paying attention. Honestly, I am looking for owls. I wanted to see the Black-and-white Owl in a tree. Flashlight up in the trees. Head in the clouds; I guess. Next thing I know, I hear Carmen telling me to stop. I assume that they have spotted something; so, I have the flashlight back on and am looking up. It took me a minute to register the concern in her voice. She then explained that I need to move; as I am standing a few feet away from a large caiman. Turns out, she was right. Her and the guide had been discussing this caiman on the way down the drive. One of the caiman on the tour earlier was in a bad mood and was cranky. It was still hanging out along the road, and I was standing next to it. The guide had been saying that we should avoid it on the way down. It seems that they forgot that they were discussing it in Spanish.

Spectacled Caiman
The one that almost got me.

I lived. I got to keep all my body parts. Unfortunately, this was the extent of my night walk. I started having some stomach issues a little further down the road and had to turn back. I wished Carmen good luck and left them to finish the walk on their own. She had a good time, but they did not see a lot. The guide said that much had changed there over the last few years and that many animals had left the area for unknown reasons. She was super happy to have seen a Kinkajou. I was super jealous.


The next morning, I spent a little time at the feeders. A Squirrel Cuckoo hopped through, and a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper skulked through a nearby tree. I checked the moth light to see if we could find any antbirds hanging around, but all we did was stir up some Curassow. The highlight of the morning was a Long-billed Hermit that stubbornly perched where it could hardly be photographed and a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogon feeding in a fruit tree. We walked the grounds a bit and found the other feeders. The beautiful Chestnut-colored Woodpecker was hanging out there. Around the bend and down the hill from there, we checked the kingfisher perches and had an uncooperative Green Kingfisher come through.


One more stop by the feeders to photograph a dancing Keel-billed Toucan, and it was time to head out.


On the way back to San Jose, we birded the gravel road until we hit pavement. I was hoping to find a Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. No joy. Variable Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit, and Yellow-faced Grassquit dominated the fields. Various swallows fed from the wires. As we drove through a small town, the crazy guide came walking out of a store, and we happily waved to him.


I was driving with my window down, and we heard a loud squawk. We knew what that meant and quickly pulled the car over. I am not sure why I did not immediately grab my camera, but it cost me an opportunity for some decent shots. An old Costa Rican wheeled by in his truck and happily called out what I already knew, "Lapas!". Great Green Macaw were feeing in a large tree here along the road. One was initially fairly low, but they are agile and quickly move in and out of cover. My opportunity was fleeting, but I am happy to have seen them and got the shots that I did. An amazing and, unfortunately, highly endangered bird.


The ride back was fairly uneventful; except for where Google told us to turn right off a bridge to access the road below. We found a different way. Speaking of bridges. We came to a one-lane bridge and had a guy on a motorbike stopped at the other end. He was on the bridge; so, we could not move forward. We could not figure out what he was doing until we noticed the monkeys. A group of Howler Monkey were resting on a parallel bridge. The guy eventually moved on, and we drove across before getting out and walking back to the monkeys. They did not care for the extra attention, though, and quickly moved on.


We did stop by the Black-crested Coquette place again, but it was still gated up. We got into San Jose and quickly checked into our traditional "heading home" hotel, the Holiday Inn Express next to the airport. The hotel also happened to be about 4 minutes away from where our Covid tests were scheduled. Luggage stowed and nose swabbed, we headed off to the last of our traditions when in Costa Rica - dinner at Las Delicias Del Maiz. Oddly, one of Carmen's teachers had asked here where we like to eat in Costa Rica. When Carmen mentioned this place, the teacher was stunned. She hated the place. Not that they did not have good food, but it turns out that the place was a favorite of the teacher's father, and she had to eat there all the time growing up. Kinda funny. They still serve some of the best peppermint lemonades in Costa Rica. We survived the trip back to the hotel; even though Carmen directed me the wrong way onto a one-way road. It was at the worst intersection in San Jose, and I am pretty sure we should have been in an accident. We got through it though, and we survived the trip home. We even had four more days left before we had to return to work. A quick vacation from the vacation before things went back to normal - or whatever we want to call things now.


Thanks for reading and following along,

Mike

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