Volcano, Motmots and Hanging Bridges
Location: La Fortuna, San Carlos (Arenal Volcano environs)
Usual birding spots: La Peninsula road, Sky Hanging Bridge, Arenal Observatory Lodge, El Castillo road, Bogarin trail.
Arenal is one of the North Caribbean region's best-known ecotourist locations. Its centerpiece is the stunning Arenal Volcano. Birders normally focus on the numerous access points to forest-edge habitats along or near the road El Castillo, between the National Park and Lake Arenal. There are ample accommodation options, including (but not restricted) to the small tourist town of La Fortuna. The following sites merit a morning or full day birding.
LA PENINSULA ROAD
This is an old gravel road of c.6 km that connects the dam at Lake Arenal to the entrance of the National Park. Essentially an open road surrounded by a diversity of habitats, it offers some of the area's best birding . It is spectacular for some tough secondary-growth species such as Thicket Antpitta (Hylopezus dives) - it was here that I discovered the first-ever nest of this species - (Vargas & Greeney, manuscript in preparation), Great Antshrike (Taraba major) and Dull-mantled (Myrmeciza laemosticta) and Bare-crowned (Gymnocichla nudiceps) antbirds.
La Peninsula is also particularly good for one speciality of the North Caribbean foothills, Keel-billed Motmot (Electron carinatum). Here you normally see it in pairs with conspecifics or Broad-billed Motmot (Electron platyrhynchum), it is very likely that the two species hybridize regularly here. Although Keel-billed Motmot is common, seeing it requires patience and, typically, judicious and sensitive use of playback. White-fronted Nunbird (Monasa morphoeus) and Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) are regularly seen here.
As of 2016 there are two options for birding the forest canopy from hanging or suspension bridges. One is near Lake Arenal dam, the other on the road toward El Castillo town. Both are popular among (non-birding) tourists and can become somewhat crowded during high season (December–April); the birding is nevertheless worthwhile.
Sky Adventures run the set of hanging bridges near El Castillo. These offer the better elevational gradient. The late opening is not too unfortunate as it provides ample opportunity to bird the entrance road. This provides great views of tree tops; look for Lovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis) in fruiting trees.
Once inside the park, don't ignore the trails between the hanging bridges; curiously latter rarely provide great birding opportunities but the trails in between provide outstanding opportunities for Ocellated (Phaenostictus mcleannani) and Zeledon’s antbirds (Myrmeciza zeledonia), Song Wren (Cyphorhinus phaeocephalus), and Black-headed Antthrush (Formicarius nigricapillus). The typical mixed-species flock will include White-throated Shrike-Tanager (Lanio leucothorax), Black-and-yellow (Chrysothlypis chrysomelas), Emerald (Taagara florida) and Blue-and-gold (Bangsia arcaei) tanagers, and Sharpbill (Oxyruncus cristatus). If the palms (Arecaceae) and wild avocado (Lauraceae) trees are fruiting, Yellow-eared Toucanet (Selenidera spectabilis) and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus glabricollis) a globally Endangered bird, also tend to occur. It is worth requesting permission at front desk to walk on the maintenance road for the tram, which is where my best observations come from. Once on the hanging bridges you don’t necessary have to walk the whole trail with all the hanging bridges but it will worth continue walking to El Millón lookout, to scan for Ornate Hawk-Eagle (reliable here)—and keep alert for other big raptors as Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga), White Hawk (Pseudastur albicollis) and Barred Hawk (Morphnarchus princeps) and even one of the very few sightings of Crested Eagle (Morpheus guianensis), in Costa Rica was from the third hanging bridge at this site.
ARENAL OBSERVATORY LODGE
Whilst far from the only lodge in the Arenal area, this offers by far the most spectacular birding in its grounds. The gardens are planted with Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta spp)., small purple flowers that are a magnet for humminbirds. A typical visit will produce 12 or more species, including specialities such as Black-crested Coquette (Lophornis helenae), Green Thorntail (Discosura conversii), Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) and Snowcap (Microchera albocoronata). Even the south pacific regional endemic White-crested Coquette (Lophornis adorabilis) and dry forest specialty Cinnamon Hummingbird (Amazilia rutila) (vagrants in these parts) has occurred here (E. Carman pers. comm. & J.D. Vargas sightings). The hummingbirds are mostly seasonal visitors, occurring at times of little natural nectar: if you see flowering canopies in the forest, don’t expect to see as many 'hummers' in the gardens!
The Lodge trails are good, particularly the Waterfall Trail which can be good for Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Song Wren and occasionally Lanceolated Monklet. If you are staying in Arenal Observatory Lodge, look for Lovely Cotinga around 05h45 in front of La Casona rooms. A pair sometimes perch on the opposite side of the small valley, particularly (but not exclusively) during January–May.
OTHER SITES AROUND ARENAL
If staying near Fortuna town ('La Fortuna de San Carlos'), the trail to Fortuna Waterfall can be very productive. In my opinion, this is one of Costa Rica's most reliable sites for Lanceolated Monklet. The best zone is the first 300 m down the steps toward the waterfall. Barred Hawk, White Hawk, White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis) and White-fronted Nunbird are also fairly regular there. Be sure to arrive early, as the site gets packed during the high season (January - April). It is worth visiting the day before and seeking permission from the person at reception for early entry the next day.
I also recommend visiting the 'Bogarin Trail' for Uniform Crake (Amaurolimnas concolor), which regularly visits the feeders to pick the fallen bananas. White-throated Crake (Laterals albigularis) also visits frequently, as well as legions of Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), Crimson-collared Tanager (Ramphocelus sanguinolentus), Yellow-throated Euphonia (Euphonia hirundinacea) plus the usual species of open habitats, such as Passerini's Tanager (Ramphocelus passerinii), Golden-hooded Tanager (Taagara larvata), and Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus). Finally, driving the road towards El Castillo is usually good for open-habitat species such as Crimson-collared Tanager, Banded-back Wren, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Great Antshrike and even Black (Spizaetus tyrannus) and Ornate hawk-Eagles among many others open area and edge species.
Map of Arenal Volcano hotspots from Fortuna town.
Note: Unnamed Road refers to Peninsula Road.
Dramatic sunset from Observatory Lodge deck over the Peninsula road and forest, to give an idea how close are both hotspots.
Look for this Keel-billed Motmot when birding La Peninsula Road, is one of the specialties of this hotspot. Knowing the call is essential key to find it. Click on the image to hear a recording taken in this site.
Entrance gate to Arenal Observatory Lodge is very evident at the end of the road but beware with other trail parks trying to make you pay entrance fee to visit their trails. Best of this location is the garden that you won't find in any other trail. Fee is normally USD $10.