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Birds in Paradise

Species Rare and Common Flock Together on New Costa Rican Trail

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008; Page P01

I've just plopped my luggage down at the lodge in the Costa Rican rain forest when the first yell of "macaws" goes out. Like a bird-watching rube, I watch as others scurry from their rooms, binoculars at the ready. By the time I stir, the endangered great green macaws have disappeared behind the towering tree line.

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The next day, the macaw assembly is repeated as we sit down for an open-air dinner. "Macaws, macaws," yells our guide, Yehudi Hernandez, as he races to a clearing. No longer slow, I nearly trip over a chair in my zeal to get a glimpse. But again, no dice.

By the fourth day, when our two other guides, Holly Robertson, 26, and Raquel Gómez, 30, jump up from a sound sleep to the now unmistakable calls of the raucous birds, I come close to sprinting outside in my underwear, toothbrush in hand. Cooler heads prevail, and my quarry again escapes.

Enough already. I am tired of the macaw drill. If those feathered teases ever deign to show their beaks again, I vow success. But with fewer than 35 breeding pairs left in the entire country, victory is not assured.

Our group of 11, from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon and Virginia, hadn't traveled to the central lowlands of northeast Costa Rica just to see the macaws. Willing lab rats, we'd signed up with the nonprofit Rainforest Biodiversity Group to be among the first tourists to explore the newly created Costa Rican Bird Route, set to open officially in February. Created partially with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the route, which covers a dozen sites and has 520 bird species, is modeled on similar trails in the United States that promote conservation through tourism.

We would test an ambitious, week-long itinerary developed by Robertson, president of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group, and Gómez, the group's Costa Rican coordinator, that would include numerous jungle hikes, hours of travel via small bus on rutted dirt roads and visits with local families. We'd traverse the bird route's 10,500-plus acres in search of such exotic flora and fauna as walking palms, bromeliads, motmots, trogons, toucans, poison dart frogs, sloths and howler monkeys. Some also hoped that our journey might serve a larger purpose: namely, fortifying the gamble taken by the route's private landowners to host tourists instead of hacking down the rain forest for cattle farms or pineapple plantations.

Sloths, Vultures and Pesticides

We ease into the trip with an overnight stay at Hotel Bougainvillea, a property just outside the capital city of San Jose that combines conveniences, such as free Internet and a fully stocked bar, with 10 acres of gardens that host hordes of birds, bugs and frogs.

Arriving in late afternoon, I grab my binoculars and head outside, anticipating adding a couple of new names to my not-so-impressive life list of 340 bird species that I've seen over the years. Within moments, I spot an unfamiliar sparrow, a vaguely robinlike bird and a loud, yellow-bellied bird with a black mask. Trouble is, I apparently don't know a motmot from a potoo. Just as I am about to exchange my field glasses for a field guide, I knock into Bob Hunter, one of our group's members, whom I quickly peg as an expert birder. "Rufous-collared sparrow, clay-colored robin, great kiskadee," he rattles off, as I point to my mystery birds. I'll stick close to Bob for the trip's duration.

During the night, I keep waking to a high-pitched, repeating whistle. Frog? Human? Bird? At 6 the next morning, we gather with Hernandez, our 29-year-old local birding expert. I get my answer as the mystery whistler (a ferruginous pygmy-owl) lands his six-inch body in a nearby tree.

We get on the bus, heading over the mountains toward our first stop along the birding route, El Gavilan Lodge. But suddenly Hernandez yells, our driver yanks the bus to the side of the road and we spill out, a routine that we will soon have down pat. With an uncanny ability to spot animals from long distances and in impossible hiding places, Hernandez has found a sloth lounging in a tree. We get clear views of the male brown-throated three-toed sloth, algae on its fur giving it a decidedly green tinge, as Hernandez explains that they leave the trees for the forest floor only once a week to defecate and that several species of moths live within the animal's fur. Who knew?

At Gavilan, we are greeted by a welcoming staff and dozens of colorful tanagers and orioles eating fruit from a wooden platform. Within moments, our first chance of seeing the great green macaws is over, but a short time later we are rewarded when Hernandez points to the sky, saying simply, "Migration." Tens of thousands of turkey vultures, Swainson's hawks and broadwing hawks pass high overhead in a seemingly unending river. My neck hurts as I strain to keep track of the massive kettle. But Hernandez is already moving us along to hike the adjacent trails, where we are quickly mesmerized by another stream of creatures: leaf-cutting ants that march in a steady line balancing jagged bits of leaves 20 times their weight.

Along the road outside Gavilan, small children play around us, waving and posing happily for pictures. We walk until we come to the start of a banana plantation. Gómez explains the environmental downsides of mono-crop cultivation, including deforestation and pesticide runoff. A crop duster passes low overhead, and Hernandez hustles us back up the road away from the spray. The children continue to play, oblivious to the plane's purpose.


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