Costa Rica - Do You Like Toucans?
October 6, 2019 ~ Bill Maroldo and I spent 10 days in Costa Rica recently and I am overwhelmed with how to share the images and thoughts about the trip. Maybe you have been before but it was all new to us. Instead of a chronological report of the trip, I am going to focus on one species or group at a time in separate adventures, sprinkling observations about the country, the trip and photographic challenges as we go along.
Greg Lavaty of Texas Target Birds is an old friend of ours and well-experienced in guiding birding trips with an emphasis on photographic opportunities. He designed the trip to take advantage of our desire to see as many water birds as possible, plus colorful and interesting resident birds. He has been going to Costa Rica for years and did an awesome job taking us around. I don’t know how many new species we saw; I am still going through the over 25K images I took.
On our first afternoon we had stopped to eat at at a roadside restaurant and to photograph the hummers around the dining pavilion… but a YUGE cloud bank rolled in and made that challenging. I got a few usable images but basically it was just too dark.
Later as we climbed higher in the mountains we spotted these Toucans down the side of a steep cliff. The top of the dead tree was almost eye level with us on the road. The Black-mandibled (or Yellow-throated) Toucan was one of the first birds we really photographed in Costa Rica. I had hoped to see some Toucans, but I expected they would be at a feeder station or at a special set up. I guess I didn’t expect them to be flying around all wild like hawks or vultures.
We both had been using our Nikkor 300 f/4 PFs on the in-your-face hummers earlier, so when we spotted these giant birds, we just grabbed our cameras and hopped out of the car. Truthfully, I was excited just to see them and more than a little concerned with not falling off the side of the mountain. Of course, by the time we swapped to our Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PFs these guys had flown from the wide open dead snag to a darker area with twigs, leaves and branches to block the view.
Don’t they all do that? No matter what country you are in?
You would think you need a fast shutter speed for possible flight shots, but in reality, you often have to slow it way down to get all the light possible. These were hand-held and the birds were just slightly below us down the side of the mountain. The light-weight and maneuverable Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF was perfect for the trip; at least for me. I could hand-hold or use it with the tripod. Yes, the Nikkor 500 f/4 would have given me a whole stop more light but I can’t carry and hand-hold it like I used to.
Luckily we had additional chances with the Black-mandibled Toucan. We found the guy above when we visited Bograin Trails in La Fortuna, San Carlos. Conventional wisdom is that the little town renamed itself La Fortuna because it was spared destruction when the Arenal volcano suddenly popped up in a cornfield in 1968. Wikipedia disputes this but I think it is a great story.
The owner of the private preserve, Giovanni Bogarin told us he was a little boy when the volcano erupted and ruined the family farm leaving his parents no way to support their eleven children. Think about that the next time you are worrying over your personal problems!
At Bograin Trails there were several Toucans in the high trees around the pool and a small pond. Giovanni showed us around (and carried my tripod!) while the feeder area was getting its weed eating.
We took a lot of photos at the feeders (plenty for future adventures!) and found some cool birds and surprises on the trails as well.
It is a well-known birding location and if you are in the Arenal volcano area I think it is a must see. There is a covered pavilion with benches where you can set up your tripod and catch the colorful little birds coming in for treats. They had placed a papaya on a post for the Toucans but they ignored it.
I especially liked this shot; who knew Toucans had a little crest? The Black-mandibled Toucan is the largest Toucan in Costa Rica. It feeds mainly on fruits, but occasionally on lizards, rodents, smaller birds and insects. The male and female look alike with the female having a slightly smaller bill.
La Fortuna is a young vibrant town and quite the tourist spot. I hear it gets crazy crowded during the dry season (Dec-March) when folks come down to escape the snow and cold at home. Birding and eco-tours are not the only attractions; you can try zip-lines, horseback riding, rafting and kayaking. And there is a very pretty town square. We found excellent pizza at one of the small restaurants on the main drag.
Later in our trip we spent a few days in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and we found this Collared Aracari Toucan near the boat dock of our lodge. It is about the same size as the Black-mandibled but the serrations on his bill are much more pronounced. We got a few shots of him before he flew off and we turned out attention to some noisy Orange-chinned Parakeets.
Cano Negro is very near the Nicaraguan border and it is way out in the country. We stayed at a lovely lodge, the Hotel de Campo. The grounds are like a garden and most plants are labeled. The owner, Andre, told us of his future plans to include sustainable garden for butterflies to reproduce.
Oh, the night sky is incredible; I haven’t seen stars so bright since I was a child.
Not much later the Collared Aracari returned the the high snags… with an egg. It is a rather large egg he stole somewhere! Maybe it is a chicken egg? Costa Rica has no seasons like we do so birds breed year-round on their own schedule…it could be anyone’s.
On our last morning in Cano Negro we got a bonus boat ride since the previous afternoon’s trip was cut short by a stupendous rainstorm. September and October are officially in the “rainy season” and we did have rain on part of two of our ten days. It is a risk but visiting this area during the dry season is not as productive for birds. The Rio Frio can shrink to a trickle and the marshlands are not as accessible. And it is extremely dusty AND more expensive. I have tons of photos from our boat tours here which I will get to later. Monkies! Iguanas! Kingfishers!
We found a flock of Keel-billed Toucans in the Cecropia trees along the river. They are the most colorful Toucans and like others they nest in cavities of trees. No, they don’t do any excavations with that big bill; they use natural holes or ones made by woodpeckers.
The colorful Keel-billed is the one you see in posters and advertisements. Bet you didn’t know they have a red butt!
This trip was very educational for long-distance traveling for birds. We are used to just throwing a lot of stuff in the truck and heading out. Even trips to Rockport or Corpus are only for a few days and stores are close and familiar. We made the rookie mistake of packing too much and it was just more to carry and keep up with.
I could not have managed my heavy 500 f/4. If you are young and strong, maybe you could but we did a fair amount of walking (Carara National Park. marshland around Cano Negro, Bograin Trails). The 500 f/5.6 PF was fantastic for hand-holding and flight shots; on a tripod for set ups or in the darker parts where you had to shoot at low shutter speeds. On the boats, the 500 f/5.6 PF was excellent. We got so close to the birds sometimes I had to move to the back of the boat!
The 300 f/4 PF was used only a few times and I probably wouldn't bother with it again. We took our 12 mm Ultra-wides and did use them some shots, but the phone is faster and is often adequate for scenery shots. I did not use my 105 macro at all because I was just too busy doing other things. I definitely need light-weight travel tripod. One that collapses short enough for my small suitcase. Even if it is not as sturdy as my existing tripod, I can work with that. My regular tripod dictated the size of our shared suitcase and got pretty heavy to tote around.
More birds next week, or even sooner if I can get stuff written up. Have you been to Costa Rica? Do you want to go? Comments and questions are welcome below!