1. Hummingbird Gallery
In the late winter of 2001 I embarked upon a six-week visit to the much-vaunted Central American country of Costa Rica. Just as my journey to Cape May and my decision to stay there had come in response to a desire to fulfil my intention to experience bird migration at its most intense, so, in time, an urge had arisen to succumb to an ambition that had begun to rear in its place - to visit the tropical rainforests of Central America.
I say 'Central' rather than 'South' America although I could have used either interchangeably. Content to flick randomly through Neotropical bird field guides for a few years, happy in the knowledge that these birds existed without my need to see them, I felt it had become time for me to experience some of them 'in the flesh'. Though the desire to 'list' as many species as possible no longer drove me to distraction as it did before Cape May; after four relatively 'tick-free' years in southern New Jersey I figured it was time to be overwhelmed by as many new birds as my senses could reasonably cope with at once.
My principal aim in visiting Costa Rica therefore, was not necessarily to rush around with a Checklist of the Birds of the World in one hand, or to put myself out on a limb seeking out difficult-to-see species, but designed, mainly, to get a flavour for the birding there. There was no doubt, from a negative viewpoint, Cape May had 'softened me up' as a birder; from a positive perspective, it meant I preferred to take time over birding abroad, settle in to a place, and gain a credible familiarity with a number of species that would hopefully remain in memory longer than a mind-boggling list of names that would have no meaning for me when I looked at it many years later. I told myself beforehand that I'd be happy to see one or two representatives of the principal bird families - families that would be new to me: tinamous, toucans, manikins, antbirds, ant-thrushes, ant-pittas and such like - and that would suffice.
I spent the first week of my 'adventure' primarily in the Costa Rican lowlands, birding a site called La Virgen on the Rio Sarapiqui - a place I'd seen recommended in the Lonely Planet Travel Guide rather than in one of several birders' reports I was using. This, in itself, was a sign of changing perspectives from pre-Cape May overseas travelling expeditions. I was now something of a 'happy dude!'
Or was I? Well, in a sense, yes, I was a lot less serious than of old and now my birding activities were often interspersed with whole afternoons taking photographs of scenery and people, and lounging in cafés drinking cappuccinos and conversing with fellow travellers (heavier-than-average rainfall for the time of year may have had something to do with this!). But, there was still that other side to me...that side of 'us' (presumably anyone reading this piece) that distinguishes between 'birders' and 'non-birders' (in the same way armies talk of themselves and 'civilians' and golfers describe non-golfers as 'the general public'). One of the prime birding sites in Costa Rica I learned in the build-up was Monteverde, a montane forest site, three or four hours west (and upwards) from the capital city of San Jose. It was here the rapacious birder within me enjoyed its most outstanding experience.
The journey to Monteverde took longer than I thought. It was a fairly straightforward three hours along the tarmac smoothness of the main Interamericana route west of San Jose, but from here, it was a two-hour final drive up a steep, dusty mountain road studded liberally with pot-holes large enough to reduce the bus to a pedestrian five or six miles an hour. It wasn't long after six p.m., just turning dark and cool, by the time the bus commenced its ascent, and almost nine o'clock by the time we completed it. We pulled up into the little village square of Santa Elena, 'capital' of the Monteverde mountain region, just as a light rain began to fall.
I checked into the Pension Tucan, a family-run hostel a mile outside of town, attracted by its low price and promise of tranquility away from the bustle of the main village. I showered, dressed more warmly and then walked back into town for a pre-arranged rendezvous with a British birder, Tony Kinread, whom I had met on the plane across from England and who had arrived in Monteverde a few days ahead of me.
|Blue-crowned Motmot: Monteverde, Costa Rica. (Photo: Frank Bryant)|
I sat with Tony for an hour while he extolled the wonders of the birds of the area - Resplendent Quetzal, Three-wattled Bellbird, Black Guan, Gray-throated Leaftosser and other assorted exotics.
But one thing in his tales excited me above all other.
Of all the places I'd planned to visit in Costa Rica, Monteverde was the place I'd looked forward to most in my pre-trip daydreams and there was one particular very special reason for this. When Tony started recounting his tales of the Hummingbird Gallery at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, I thought I was about to explode at the joyous prospect of being a step away from satisfying an ambition I'd anticipated for years. After almost nine continuous years in Cape May (and a three-week visit to California) my grand tally of the world's 337 hummingbird species was a paltry four. Where once upon a time the American Wood Warblers had replaced Phylloscopus, Calidris and Larus as my primary birding distraction, they themselves (now I'd seen most of them, of course) had now, in turn, been ousted by the hummers in fantasies of avian delight. My first week in the Costa Rican lowlands had yielded plenty of the abundant and widespread Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (and brief, untickable glimpses of one or two others) but now, here I was, on the threshold of a site where I was guaranteed to see seven species any time I chose to go there. That recognition alone was a delicious feeling to savour.
After a couple of beers, it was an uncomfortably stiff one-kilometre climb back up the hill to my digs, with passing cars unleashing horrendous tornadoes of dust from the ill-repaired road every time they went past me, changing their gears. I was glad they had put two spare blankets by the side of my bed. The night had an air of Britain in late autumn about it - which roughly translated meant it was windy...and cold.
I woke early next morning and more or less automatically dressed and made my way out the door in the direction of the cloud forest reserve. I knew I would be staying in the Monteverde area for a full week and I argued with myself that I was in no hurry to get anywhere in particular - but my body seemed to have a different idea: hurrying me along the road to the Hummingbird Gallery as though tomorrow might never dawn. It was hard to believe I had toyed with the idea of delaying my gratification by strolling casually along the road and getting there, say, oh...early afternoon?
"I've got one week, seven species, guaranteed..." I kept saying to myself. "I can go and see them any time I want."
That any time was looking like it was going to be now. It was about four kilometres to the entrance to the Cloud Forest and it felt like I was being pulled along like an iron filing to a magnet. I picked up my first Slate-throated Redstart and Blue-crowned Motmot en route...and a bird I still consider to be one of the best in the world: a Black-and-white Warbler feeding low down in an old pine tree next to the river.
With one or two short stops along the way, it took me just under an hour to reach the entrance to the Monteverde State Forest. Just as I got there the local early morning bus arrived from the village of Santa Elena and deposited about thirty passengers armed with binoculars and telescopes; as well as an assortment of forestry workers, tour guides, and ticket collectors. Fortunately for my sake, all the activity was based around the entrance gate to the Forest Reserve proper. Nobody seemed to be taking the little side-track up to the Hummingbird Gallery just outside the main entrance to the Park. Could it really be I was about to experience this all by myself?
I mounted a small flight of wooden stairs to a miniature gift shop, a narrow courtyard, and five sugar-water filled hummingbird feeders of the kind I was used to seeing from years in Cape May - and watched the show commence instantaneously.
For the first ten minutes of the action I stood respectfully on the side, hiding behind the stanchion to the shop doorway that sold hummingbird souvenirs, allowing space for the birds to move in and do what they had to. It soon dawned on me though that these birds were far more used to humans than my excessive caution allowed for and that an approach within a few feet was not only possible, but was practically unavoidable, as birds buzzed in left and right no matter where I stood. My memory declines to recall the exact order in which they appeared, but here were the seven species, as promised: Purple-throated Mountain Gems and Green-crowned Brilliants were by far the most numerous - males of both species outnumbering females by two or three to one. The huge (for a hummingbird) and distinctive Violet Sabrewing was the next most frequent visitor, its arrivals and departures brief and sudden; Green Violetear, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and Coppery-headed Emerald all made appearances in the first five minutes and the last to arrive, Magenta-throated Woodstar was far from being the least, feeding distinctively like an oversized bumblebee with its tail stuck in the air, making it easy to pick out in its less frequent visitations.
It's unfair, really, isn't it! Not only do these incomparable little jewels possess unique flying abilities and invariably dazzling plumage but someone, in their wisdom, chose to give these hummingbirds, almost without exception, some of the most enchanting and evocative names in the whole of the bird world. Remember that old Carly Simon song from the film of the same name: 'The Spy Who Loved Me'? The immortal line "Nobody does it better...makes me feel sad for the rest..." struck me now as I watched these birds perform. Watching a hummingbird hovering at close range is an experience almost completely divorced from ordinary birdwatching - a sort of bird-come-insect. An English friend suggested to me they had come to Earth from another planet, perhaps arriving on a fallen meteor. I laughed and looked for the twinkle in his eye, but I think he was quite serious!
I could, I partially suppose, have remained marvelously happy to watch these hummingbirds for hours on end without further ado, but here's the rub: my carefree 'dudey' joy was intermingled with the serious pre-ordained challenge of trying to capture them on camera. And I wasn't best familiar with my equipment, to say the least. Just prior to coming to Costa Rica I had traded in my old Nikon FE with 500mm 'wildlife lens' for a lighter, more compact Canon 1000 and zoom lens with maximum focal length of 200mm. This latter was primarily intended as a landscape lens and was never going to be good enough for decent bird photographs...unless my subjects happened to be very close...as they were now. The Canon 1000 comes with a built-in flash unit and my forays in to the field of flash photography in the past had been brief and undistinguished; some attempts, admittedly, would better be described as woeful. I turned to a professional friend of mine for advice prior to departure, a fellow who makes a living from portrait photography, a member of the Royal Professional Photographers Society, no less. "Stick the camera on Automatic and hope for the best..." was his sage advice. So much for university education.
For two hours at the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery I remained completely undisturbed by human presence: just hummingbirds, my camera, and me. It was Perfect. I had enough time to switch frequently between homing in on achieving the best possible photos and stopping and relaxing and just taking in the impact of what I was witnessing. It was an intense moment of birdwatching euphoria equal to anything I had experienced in all my birding years. As in all our best moments, my senses, emotions and intellect were in a fully heightened state of awareness, recognizing the overwhelming momentousness of this little piece of my own particular birding history. There was still the tension involved in not knowing how many, if any, of my photographs were going to come out or not? I was shooting with my 200mm lens fully extended, at a flash reading of one-ninetieth of a second. Without a tripod for support it was unlikely I would get away with more than a few photographs without camera shake or bird movement, but I used up practically three films, for insurance. It would be five weeks before I would get home and have them developed and see whether my efforts had been worthwhile. It was for that reason, I suppose, I was making the effort to simply enjoy the occasion and to register the event in the hardware of my personal memory files, in case the photos should fail to come out.
The arrival of a noisy and demonstrative party of schoolchildren put an end to my solitude and shooting but my benevolent frame of mind was not opposed to allowing them to take their turn in inheriting my thrill. I packed away my camera, and slunk off to find a quiet spot to express my emotion. I took a step off the track and inhaled deeply. Having built up the expectation of the Hummingbird Gallery within myself before coming to Costa Rica, I was now completely overwhelmed by the realization of what I had just done. In the euphoria of the mood that swept me I knew if I never saw another hummingbird again for the rest of my life, all would be forgiven in the wake of the joy that accompanied this present moment. I stood not knowing where to turn next. I made an immediate decision that that was quite enough birding excitement for one morning, and that I wouldn't tarnish the moment by seeking to grasp for any more. Any other birds I would see could only suffer in comparison. They could all wait for another day.
That, at least, was the plan. A sudden burst of movement through the trees announced a male Resplendent Quetzal flying in and landing right above my head! One of the most mythical and sought-after of all Central American specialities and it had given itself up as easily as this. It was almost too much.
"Go away!" I laughed out loud, "I can't see you today!"
In truth it was a brief view, and I would have deemed it unsatisfactory but for the fact I had temporarily forgotten what the word 'unsatisfactory' meant. I noted the Quetzal well and wished for a better look later on, but for now, it suited me simply to say I had see one. Now I could give up for the day.
A thought struck me...During last night's conversation with Tony, he had told me that he had been seeing a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites in the valley on the way back down to Santa Elena. Swallow-tailed Kite was another of those highly-desired species on my list-of-things-to-see before I came to Costa Rica - a bird I'd looked for one spring in Canada, and over several consecutive years in Cape May, always unsuccessfully. It was a sunny day, and a moderately strong wind was sending updrafts of air up into the valley. Unless I closed my eyes there would probably be no way of avoiding seeing a Kite on my way back down towards town.
"Alright," I bargained with myself, "I'll pick up my binoculars to look at Swallow-tailed Kite and then that's It".
Almost on cue, on the south side of the ridge, about two kilometres west of town, my first-ever Swallow-tailed Kite appeared on the skyline, hanging into the wind with well-practised resistance. Soon after, a second bird appeared, presumably part of a pair. I gazed on serenely, taking up a position away from the roadside where passing cars were spewing up a massive wrath of dust, blighting my eyes and optics. I was charmed, as many no doubt before me have been, by the striking wing pattern of the Swallow-tailed's plumage, the silky grey, black-and-white, and by the ease and elegance of its flight. The contrast with the star birds this morning could hardly have been greater. Where the hummingbirds had asserted their mastery of flight by buzz and verve, the Swallow-tailed Kite achieved its command by virtue of languidness and unhurried progress.
I often think to myself how few I have of what I might call 'Attenborough moments' - experiences that bypass our 'specialist' little world of twitching and tertials and point in the more general direction of the sheer wonder and mystery of why we bother to watch birds at all; documentary-style experiences that can be captured on film and used as propaganda tools in the cause celebre of educating the wider world into the necessities of conserving all things natural. As I lay in the long grass of the valley watching the Kites scouring the breadth of the ridges with graceful ease, contemplating the wonders and mysteries of flight, the dulcet voice of Sir David came easily to mind, providing the running commentary.
'Here, in the windswept valleys of the Cordillera Mountains of Costa Rica, the Swallow-tailed Kite plies its trade; effortlessly searching the low grasslands and scrub forest for its prey. Soon, they will be nesting in the recesses of one of the old oak trees that line the hillside, possibly using last year's nest...'
And still my morning was not yet complete. After admiring the Kites from my hidden vantage point for three quarters of an hour, I walked off, head down, in the direction of lunch. A fluty-voiced songster on the roadside just before I turned into the side road to my lodge stopped me in my tracks, putting me in mind of a Wren. I was about to ignore it and move off, when it jumped up ten yards in front of me and landed on a low branch in full, outstanding view. It was an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, chest out, bill open wide; singing; tail raised and alert. The previous week I had unexpectedly been introduced to the Nightingale Thrush family (Catharus) in the shape of the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush at a place called Volcan Poas in central Costa Rica. I say 'unexpected' because it was a classic example of a picture in a Field Guide doing no justice to a species (or family) whatsoever and I was startled to find them (a) remarkably confiding and active at the edge of, rather than in the middle of, the forest and (b) endearingly 'robin-like' in character.
I was no less taken by the thrill of this distinctly more colourful member of its genus, here at Monteverde. Exotica like Resplendent Quetzal notwithstanding, there is something very striking and gratifying about looking at a bird that, in shape if not in plumage, reminds me sentimentally of 'our' 'Old World' thrushes and robins - as well as harking back to my extended childhood impressions of other Catharus in Canada or Cape May.
In short, I welcomed this last bird as yet another memorable addition to what had already gone down as one of the most remarkable days' birding I'd had in years. At last I did get to call a halt to the morning's proceedings on what was still only my first day at Monteverde. I went for a stroll in the afternoon, principally to photograph the landscape rather than to do any serious birding - although I did add Plain Ant Vireo to my list of new birds (a pair 'pished' out, feeding in low cover) and two Wilson's, a Black-throated Green and four Tennessee Warblers added nicely to the Black-and-White Warbler seen earlier in the day. (Ah...Black-and-White Warbler! How nice to remember that old friend of mine making a cameo appearance this morning among so many other birds of great distinction.)
I will rapidly gloss over my remaining four-and-a-half weeks in Costa Rica (I have another story to relate to you below) to tell you, on return to the UK, how eagerly I anticipated the return of my slides from Fuji. I have always been impressed with the turnaround time from their laboratory in Coventry and so it was with great confidence I sat waiting for the postman two days after I'd sent thirteen rolls off for development. Here are two examples of what landed on my mat that morning. I may not have quite managed to capture all the Hummers at Monteverde - Violet Sabrewing and Magenta-throated Woodstar evaded me - but there were better than record shots of Coppery-headed Emerald, Purple-throated Mountain Gem and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and these portraits (below) of Green Violetear and Green-fronted Brilliant were, I thought, better than reasonable endorsements of the value of "Sticking it on automatic, and hoping for the best..." Camera purists might suggest technical adjustments that may have improved the overall quality of the pictures, but my contention is that in my aim of capturing the unique splendour of these marvellous little birds, justice has been done.
Green Violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus)
Green-fronted Brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula)
2. A Quest For The Sunbittern
Exactly halfway through my six-week trip to Costa Rica (see above) in March/April 2001, I sat down to take stock of circumstances and decide what I still had to do. I remember once (though I forget the particular bird we were going for), many years ago, twitching in Britain, 'dipping' the species we had travelled a long way to see, and a friend of mine consoling himself with the observation 'Oh well, at least I've seen a Sunbittern in my life.'
At the time I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never thought of going to Central or South America, had never opened one of its field guides, and never heard mention of Sunbittern on TV or otherwise. But fifteen years later, sat there by the roadside on the west coast of Costa Rica I knew now what he meant. For one thing in Ridgely's Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica it had stood out in the plates from its peers in the same strangely significant way I had once noticed Malaysian Rail Babbler in Ben King's Birds of South-East Asia - sharing the same 'almost-too-unique-to-be-true' appeal - and for another, it had been wonderfully captured in Attenborough's televised Life of Birds documentary, squaring up to a Roadside Hawk and arranging itself up like some tropical, riverine Peacock. I had a desire to see a Sunbittern like no other bird I could remember for a long, long time.
Since I'd arrived in Costa Rica I'd been keeping for myself a narrative diary of the sort I'd first attempted in my own Brit's Eye Diary of Cape May. It made a change from earlier notebooks that were more often random series of squiggles and numbers and names that I'd forgotten about soon after arriving back home. I'm very much of the school that some form of pen to paper annotation is a desirable dimension to the birdwatching experience (though I admit it is frequently being superseded by the digital camera revolution) and in this case what it meant for me was that my notes were giving me every semblance of being in a story. In a sense, it felt my Costa Rican trip was unfolding before me as time does from past to present and yet, simultaneously, it seemed there was almost this irresistible tug from the future as though in some way the story's ending had already been foretold!
Ever since the third day when I made my first tentative attempt to uncover a Sunbittern by the edge of the Sarapiqui River at a place called La Virgen I had this sneaky feeling that somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I wasn't going to see a Sunbittern until the very last few days of my trip; indeed, it was almost like I didn't want to see one until it became 'the icing on the cake' or whatever cliché I could possibly conjure up.
And thus, after a few half-hearted hours' exploration over the course of several days in the earlier half of the trip, there I was, three weeks into Costa Rica, without a Sunbittern to my name.
It was this thought that preoccupied me in the planning stages for the second half of the trip.
Seeing a Sunbittern in Costa Rica is not straightforward. There were no well-known reliable sights in the five or six trip reports I'd garnered beforehand, except perhaps La Selva on the Rio Sarapiqui River, an eighty-dollars-a-night lodge that was outside the bounds of my budget travel options. Further down the same stretch of river, at La Virgen, where I stayed for several days, an ex-pat Brit I'd bumped into with a passable all-round interest in nature had told me how six months previously he'd watched three Sunbitterns together right outside my lodge window. It was here, as I say, I'd made my first tentative search and where I'd first encountered that prophetic reassurance that I would certainly see Sunbittern if I was prepared to be patient.
According to the Field Guide, Sunbitterns are widespread in Costa Rica, at a variety of altitudes, though nowhere very common. I was surprised to hear mention of them at Monteverde when I was there, though I saw none myself. At one point I'd gone off deep into the cloud forest, away from the main tourist areas, and spent a night by myself in a lovely little wooden lodge with a marvellous river walk all to myself. It would have been a perfect setting...it didn't happen.
Throughout the trip my ongoing narrative was punctuated by occasional correspondence with a mysterious 'cotinga pat' at hotmail.com. Before setting off from the UK I had struck up an e-correspondence with Pat O'Donnell from Niagara, USA. I had never met Pat before, but - it transpired - he would be making his fourth trip to Costa Rica at the same time as I made my first and we made loose plans to hook up. Due to a combination of bad luck and last-minute changes of plan, we never did (though we did, we found out later, once pass each other on buses going in opposite directions to one of the montane sites) yet the significance of my correspondence with Pat was that he was able to pass on to me a number of hints and sites of, shall we say, an inside nature. Because he himself had 'cleaned up' at most of the known sites in Costa Rica he was able to offer me snippets outside the normal scope of most travellers' itineraries.
Which is how I came to hear about Hitoy Cirere.
I was spending a very, very wet Easter, watching up to a quarter of a million Barn Swallows a day migrating northwards past the Costa Rican Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Viejo when Pat first told me about the Hitoy Cirere Biological Research Station about five hours' bus journey from where I was staying. "Sunbitterns said to be reasonably numerous there," said Pat, which was encouraging; "Hitoy Cirere is possibly the wettest place in Costa Rica," said the Lonely Planet, which was not so encouraging.
From my diary, on the first day:
Six a.m. Hope dawns...and immediately sags...it is raining for what I estimate is the fourteenth day in a row: not hard, but definitely raining. My resolution to look for Sunbitterns has been made whether rain or shine...but I don't fancy this...I suddenly feel tired and want to go back to bed. In spite of myself I try to think of all the good things rain has brought me in the past but it isn't easy. As its persistence strengthens, I troop along rather wearily, head down. I am dressed in shorts, shoes and raincoat. Even allowing for the rainguard on my binoculars it is wet enough to have to shield them beneath my coat and this governs my refusal to pick them up for anything other a Sunbittern.
The river isn't at all as I imagined. It is of the broad, rocky, and fast-flowing variety. There is certainly forest around it, but not directly over it, hanging all mossy and dark. I am concerned that this isn't suitable habitat for a Sunbittern. I realize how little I know of this bird's habits. Is that the whole point of seeing one? Once I see one, know what it is doing, see with my own eyes where it occurs, then I can tell the world.
Sunbittern? It isn't very sunny so I reason that might be a bad sign! And 'Bittern.' Bittern means Eurasian Bittern - hard to see; American Bittern - hard to see; Australian Bittern - hard to see. There were times when a Least Bittern was 'staked-out' at the Cape May Meadows for a couple of evenings in a row, but most of the time they were spotted by chance rather than by persistent looking. Perhaps this is the way it will be with Sunbittern? Seeing a Sunbittern may be a pleasure that is denied to the casual traveller like myself...perhaps one has to make a home of Costa Rica in order to stand a chance of seeing one...or certainly to have to come back three or four times to show it you are serious? Irrational thoughts, I know. Obviously some birdwatchers will turn up and see them straight away. But these are the kinds of things you end up thinking when you're stuck on your own.
Back and forth swayed my hopes and doubts as I sat for half an hour under my umbrella contemplating the river bank. Was this the right tactic? Should I be continuing upstream? The doubt and the rain wore me down. I decided not to press on but to return to camp to regroup. A story passed through my head of a time I went to see a singing male Scarlet Rosefinch in the northwest of Scotland. All day, for ten hours, I looked incessantly in the pouring rain. I checked every back yard in the neighbourhood, every hedgerow and power line, ten times, maybe more. Nothing. The second day dawned beautiful and sunny and as soon as I stepped out my door there was the Rosefinch - sat on a telegraph wire, singing its little heart out. The lesson learned from this remembered episode was that there is a point in birding where trudging through the rain ceases to be commendable and heroic and enters the realm of downright silly. In my wisdom, then, it was back to the camp in time to dry off. Writing in the present moment I had no idea whether I was living in a story that would end in triumph or tragedy.
The rain eases off after midday and I am ready to return to the field. I have lost a great deal of heart for the Sunbittern - although in my own way, I am trying to deceive it into pretending I have lost interest so that it might be forced to appear in sympathy or something? Instead of returning immediately to the fray to begin looking again for the Sunbittern, I choose instead to walk the main road and shoot a few frames of scenic photographs.
I briefly return to camp in mid-afternoon (three uncommon, but unexciting, Purple-throated Fruitcrows land high in the trees) and then go back to spend the evening along the river. I have played enough mind games with the Sunbittern. Have I done enough for it to yield?
Two Green Herons bursting out from streamside vegetation are the closest I get. On any other day I might stand up for the Green Heron as a very handsome bird indeed - but today, the best I can do is shake a frustrated, clenched fist at them. Two, or three, Green Kingfishers dart about, keeping my interest going, and a cloud of over 100 mixed swifts forms over the valley. A full-sized River Otter pauses for a second on a boulder midstream, before plunging back into the water in search of a fishy meal.
The following morning I am awoken at 3 o'clock by a heavy shower of rain, but it terminates abruptly, and I drift off back to sleep until six when I wake up properly. I have closed the shutters in my room, so I can't see the sky outside, but the cheery sound of birdsong bodes well.
Sure enough, it is clear - and there is even a faint streak of blue in the clouded sky - the first I have seen here. I have little heart left for the Sunbittern challenge. I can go through the motions but I don't feel hopeful, though I know I must still try.
The prospect of taking the same route as I did three times yesterday doesn't thrill me, so, instead, I decide to begin with a different trail: the Sendero Espavel - a track to the south of the main Hitoy Cirere ranger station. I remembered late last night as I fell asleep that Pat O'Donnell had mentioned seeing Great Jacamar and Song Wren down this trail in the past, two birds I would like to see. The two of them might just make amends for the absence of Sunbittern?
The track is awfully muddy - the sort that would have the fastidious running back to the car immediately. On another day I might have attempted it, but not today. I tiptoe around in my already disintegrated, disgusting shoes for a few minutes, and then give up. There is no way I can concentrate on looking for birds up ahead when I have to watch every footstep fall in order to avoid taking a tumble back down the slope. I will return to the river instead. This will be my last attempt.
I did attempt the river: slowly and methodically. I removed my shoes twice to wade through the pebbled streams, and twice returned dripping wet feet to soaking wet boots. This time I spotted a Green Heron before it saw me - and a second bird, when flushed, sat up to allow me an admiring look. No Sunbittern. A low flock of swifts feeding over the river turned out to be mostly Silver-rumped - not Chimney Swifts as I'd thought in the fading light last evening - with a few White-collared Swifts included for added value. No Sunbittern. My first Ocellated Antbird appeared briefly in the forest, and a tailless bird slipping off through the undergrowth could only have been a Grey-necked Wood Rail. No Sunbittern.
The game was up. I was slow, miserable, quite dejected. I was aware of these feelings, and aware what a fool I was being in such a gorgeous place, but I indulged them in any case. I wanted to go home. I was sick of forest birding. I was sick of the rain, sick of wet feet, wet socks, wet clothes. Fittingly, it started to rain heavily around nine o'clock and I was washed out again. I sat at the HQ watching it fall, each drop seeming to come vertically to the ground a direct 90 degrees from its natal birthing in the clouds. 'Raining stair rods,' as my grandmother might say.
I'm no anthropologist or historian, but my time in North America had introduced me to some intriguing aspects of Native Indian culture that had been denied to me in a 'Western' school. The Indians were a lot more connected to Nature and the land than we in our sophisticated world are. They believed in 'Guiding Spirits' and 'Power Animals'; part of the initiation of a young man's journey into adulthood was to be sent in to the Wilderness to live off his own wits and to develop his own particular, individual relationship with a creature that was to become his 'totem' or 'helper' in his adult life. By seeking out his 'guide' the initiate would be led to solutions regarding decisions he would have to make at crossroads in his life. The Resplendent Quetzals place in Inca and Mayan mythology is connected to these 'Vision Quests'.
I wondered, as I sat there moping, whether or not my quest for the Sunbittern didn't have some Eternal Wisdom to impart to me?
There were only two full days of my trip remaining as I left Hitoy Cirere on the bus next day. I had a number of options to consider - invitations to staked-out Black-and-White Owls and the possibility of seeing a real live 'exploding' volcano among them - but the quest for the Sunbittern had gripped me obsessively and still wouldn't let go. There was a chance I could 'bag' a dozen new birds at a primary forest site called Braulio Carillo near the capital, San Jose...but no...if my 'vision' and my 'prophecy' was to wield any meaning I had one last chance with the Sunbittern - a return to Monteverde for the third time: at least I knew exactly where they had been seen there.
The sensation I felt was one of being an automaton. It was as though I was being dragged along a preordained path and nothing I could do could alter my Fate. I was on a date with destiny. I was being magnetized towards a meeting with a Sunbittern that on one level had an air of near certainty or inevitability about it. I just had to show up and all would be revealed. Would I surrender as easily as I'd done at Hitoy Cirere? I gazed down at the forests from the bus knowing there were Sunbitterns in there somewhere but not knowing how many and how or if I'd ever see one.
Yet still I had every feeling that my story was going to end in a blaze of glory - was it just a question of putting in enough hours? The hours of deliberation and emotional turmoil were, in their own way, worth more than the simple inevitability of a dozen new birds at Braulio Carillo. At least that's what I told myself.
I arrived at Monteverde following the now-familiar, excruciating last two-hour ride up the hill from the Interamericana. I arrived to the news that today had been the first day for two weeks that it hadn't rained. I ate a hearty meal, treat myself to a brand new 400-speed film for my camera, and then went to bed.
I had originally chosen the Trogon Guest House at Santa Elena because of its owners' description of it as quiet and remote. I was none to pleased therefore to be woken at midnight by the arrival of five inconsiderate locals, especially as my alarm was set for an 5.30am start.
I woke again at 5am and though ever-mindful of the value of a good night's sleep and my present lack thereof, my resolve got me out the door with a haste I hadn't displayed in weeks. My first point of call was La Catarata (waterfall) along the road to the Cloud Forest Reserve where local birder Drew Whelan had told me last month that a Sunbittern was quite frequently seen. A Swainson's Thrush popped out of the channel when I first poked my head in - no surprise after seeing many on passage in several areas over the past two weeks - but, despite scouring the banks three times, no Sunbittern.
My next hope was to be the first visitor inside the Cloud Forest Reserve and the first to the river trail, including another waterfall, a mile and a half from the park gate. Contrary to my usual dallying around waiting for the line of people at the entrance to subside, I sprang from the bus, through the gate, and practically sprinted to the river trail. I ignored several singing birds and a number of elusive shadows on the trail in order to be first to the falls, but, even still, I noticed an almost eerie absence of birds in the first hour. The Green-fronted Lancebill (a scarce hummingbird) that had been here two weeks ago was not to be seen; its nest, if still in use, hidden behind the new growth that had occurred in the time that had elapsed.
I recognized that most of the potential Sunbittern habitat was out of bounds, not visible from the path, and the more the morning went on, the more I found myself releasing my obsession and relaxing into a more circumspect and accepting fate. I still checked the stream where I could but I began to see it less as a battle between my will and my fate. In some ways this bird's elusiveness underlined the appeal of those birds I had seen over the previous six weeks. I reasoned that if every bird performed on cue and that if my will was satisfied every time I wished it to be, much would be lost in the process. Was this the lesson of which my invisible Spirit Guide was trying to remind me? No longer did I imagine Sunbittern as being the climax of my trip but instead began to look forward to the day in far-off Peru or Brazil when I could go: "Oh, look: there's a Sunbittern over there..."
And that was about it. With only twenty-four hours left in the country I called off the Search and decided to spend my last night satisfying a non-birdwatching option. I'd already seen the spectacular crater of Volcano Poas, a short drive from San Jose, and made one, rain-washed-out pilgrimage to view the more spectacular exploding Volcano Arenal in the north, and now, I decided, to make one last-minute second attempt for the latter.
Which I did, and enjoyed; it was amazing, as a denizen of a safe and relatively tranquil northwest European country to see, lifted from the pages of a school encyclopaedia, molten lava tumbling down the sides of a massive pimple-shaped protrusion from the Earth's crust...but what has that got to do with birding? And why such a tame ending to my story of the Sunbittern?
In truth, that wasn't The End. I spent my last night in Costa Rica camping a safe distance from the volcano and then headed back next day to the city of San Jose to catch my flight, via Miami, back to Europe (Amsterdam) and thence home to Newcastle. With two hours to kill in Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, before my one-hour last-leg jaunt back across the North Sea, I idly went upstairs to check my email in the airport lounge and saw, in my inbox, the last piece of correspondence from the 'mysterious' cotinga pat (who I'd still never met). This is what it said:
"Graham, you are either going to be extremely elated or extremely deflated by what I have to tell you, depending on when you receive this message. Two days ago I got off the bus at Braulio Carillo and, after just five minutes' walking, I spotted a Sunbittern walking and feeding along the side of one of the forest streams. Better than that! An hour later I came back and saw it in exactly the same place and realized it was attending a nest...! I left it for a couple of hours and then came back in the late afternoon and after just five minutes it came in again, carrying nesting material. You can't miss it! I'm back in San Jose this evening and I can either meet you and take you there tomorrow, or if not, these are the exact directions..."
I leave you, the Reader, to fill in my reaction to this news.
And the lesson learnt?
I haven't a clue!