Friday, 28 September 2012

Hummingbirds (and frogs) of Costa Rica

My trip to Costa Rica occurred in March 2008 and was under the guidance of Greg Downing and Greg Basco. The latter is a US citizen who lives in Costa Rica and is married to a local lady.

I arrived at Juan Santamaria International Airport, San Jose, via Florida in the USA.  I met other participants of the tour at the Hotel Bougainvillea, which has it’s own gardens with beautiful orchids and other tropical flowers and a good selection of some local birds.

The following morning after breakfast we travelled to the Turrialba area on the Atlantic slopes of Costa Rica’s Central Volcanic mountain range where Rancho Naturalista is located. One thing was obvious on the journey was that there has been minimal disturbance of the tropical forests of Costa Rica. This may have been accidental in that the coffee plantations do not take too much space but in recent times the Government has made a decision to preserve much of the natural flora.
Rancho Naturalista is pleasantly located and comfortable. Fruit is liberally dispersed in trees to attract birds…..which in turn attracts birderwatchers. Greg Downing had set up several multiple flash set-ups on the lodge balcony and in the nearby forest and participants circulated around these. Hummingbird species included the Snowcap, Green-breasted Mango and White-necked Jacobin.

Approximate locations of accommodation

View from Rancho Naturalista

Indoor dining room at Rancho Naturalista

When not photographing hummingbirds we photographed the tanagers, orioles, oropendolas and chachalacas that visited the lodge’s fruit feeder.

Collared Aracari

Montezuma Oropendola

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

We spent three full days and four nights at the Rancho Naturalista and during that time got many nice shots of the Green-breasted Mangos (both male and female), White-necked Jacobin and Wood Nymphs. Often at feeders a dominant hummingbird will take charge and chase others away so you might not necessarily get a great variety of birds.

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango pair

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

Violet-eared Hummingbird

Crowned Wood Nymph
We next headed to the higher cloud forests of the northern Central Volcanic Mountain Range and our lodge, Bosque de Paz. Bosque de Paz Ecolodge is located in one of the most biodiverse areas of the country, nestled in a picturesque valley at approximately 4,500 feet above sea level between the Poas Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks. After lunch at Zarcero (Greg Basco’s home town) we arrived at the lodge. Endemic wildlife included the turkey-like Black Guan and Agoutis, large forest rodents. Quetzals are common visitors to the area but we did not have the fortune to see any in a photographable location.

Bosque de Paz Ecolodge



The next morning the multi-flash set-ups were in place and attracted a different subset of hummingbirds; the Scintillant Hummingbird (Costa Rica’s smallest species), Violet Sabrewings (Costa Rica’s largest species), the Purple-throated Mountain Gem and the Green-crowned Brilliant.

Green-crowned Brilliant

Magnificent Hummingbird

Violet Sabrewing

Small groups of photographers were free to explore the local flora and fauna  in the nearby valley and along the rushing stream. In the evenings there were slide-shows and discussions in an adjacent conference room. As expected in Costa Rica, the home of good coffee….the brew was always superb.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

On the following day we went on an excursion to photograph the nearby Toro waterfall, which is 110 metres high and provided spectacular shots of the falls and the surrounding cloud forest.

Toro Waterfall (click on image to see large version)

We next set out to the Sarapiqui area to a lowland rainforest. We roamed the Selva Verde Lodge grounds in search of photographic targets that included the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, the Blue Jeans Frog, the Green and Black Poison dart frog and the famed Red-eyed Tree frog. In the afternoon we went on a boat tour on the nearby Sarapiqui River to photograph Sunbitterns, Bare-throated Tiger heron, Green Ibis, Sloths and the Spectacled Caiman. That evening we photographed frogs in their natural habitats around the lodge and experimented with using LCD torches as a light source.

Black and Green Poison Arrow Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog (using LED torches as a light source)

Blue Jeans Frog

We spent one last evening at the Hotel Bouganvillea before dispersing in various directions.

Cattle Egret

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Just to comment on aspects of the tour. Both Gregs were excellent hosts and accomplished naturalists and photographers….at all times good company and both with a good sense of humor. The trip was well-organized and the hummingbird set-ups were painstakingly done. The Rancho Naturalista is comfortable with many species available. Some of the other guests, a group of British birders were not as friendly as they could be and some feeding stations that Greg Downing set up for morning photography disappeared overnight.

                 The second lodge was also very comfortable and the food was very good. There seemed to be some problems with the disposition of hummingbird feeders but this did not impact greatly. To photograph hummingbirds in the multi-flash set-ups requires that the normally placed feeders are removed thus pushing the birds to the photograph set-ups. Not many lodges are keen to allow this and this limits the venues for this type of photography. If there are other guests present there is therefore a conflict of interests as they want to observe as many species as possible coming to the lodge’s feeder. The third location that was included to photograph the exotic local frogs was generally good but the river trip was not very spectacular from a quality photograph point of view. Recent trips offer more diversity and concentrate on more of the spectacular bird life aside from hummingbirds. Greg Basco also works with Joe and Maryanne McDonald, which would also be a great combination of expertise.

The snake wranglers: Greg Basco and Greg Downing

Bouganvillea Hotel;


Bosque de Paz Ecolodge;

Selva Verde Lodge;

 Graeme Guy September 2012


  1. Fantastic birding @ Rancho. Been twice and always great memories. I still salivate when I hear a bell [ signals feeding time at Rancho ]. Bosque de Paz great for hummers and Black Guans. That walk to the waterfall is not short-we fell for that trick. Disappointing for birds other than hummingbirds. Saw Volcano hummingbird , which was special for me .

  2. How much would the violet sabrewing print cost? I'd like to have it printed on my shower curtain.

  3. I'd also like a copy of the red eyed tree frog possibly depending on price