Northumberland

It seems that only time I update this blog is just after we get back from holiday!  So here we go again – at the end of July we headed to Northumberland for a wildlife-centric holiday in the UK.  On the way we stopped at the excellent Rogerthorpe Manor hotel which is conveniently situated for the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings reserve which we visited the following morning before starting the final leg of our journey north.  Although we didn’t see the Black-necked Grebes featured on Springwatch and there were also no signs of any Bittern, we did manage to find a Willow Tit on one of the feeders.  The reserve is very large and we could easily have spent more time there.

When we arrived at our holiday cottage, we were greeted by a text from Martin at Northern Experience Wildlife Tours informing us that both our boat trips booked for the weekend had been cancelled due to bad weather.  This was the first indication that our careful organisation of this holiday wasn’t going to go entirely to plan!  On the plus side, both days we’d booked with Martin were rearranged for later in the week.  That meant that we were left to ourselves for the first two days, one of which we spent birding locally near Embleton – largely along the coast path.  We were very pleased to see several Arctic Skuas and also found a large Kittiwake colony at Dunstanburgh Castle (pictured below).  But more excitingly, Tom found us a small pod of five or six Bottle-nosed Dolphin playing just offshore, some of them jumping completely out of the water.

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On Sunday we were reminded why we like walking and watching wildlife rather than visiting tourist attractions.  There are two famous places on the Northumberland coast that I felt we couldn’t really leave without visiting – Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castle.  As it was wet and windy on the Sunday, we drove north to Lindisfarne and paid £20 to English Heritage to visit their tiny (smaller than the attached shop) museum and walk around the ruined Priory (which takes about 10 minutes).  We then started walking to the Castle (separate fees apply) but on the way we were distracted by a bench overlooking a promising area of beach and sea, so stopped there instead.   Quite a large number of Goosander were in the harbour and a very large number of Grey Seal were basking on the shore on the far side of the water.  Bar-tailed Godwit roamed the beach and a good selection of terns and gulls were flying over.  We were happy again!

Bamburgh was slightly more expensive, but much better value as there was plenty to see and do, but really by this point we were looking forward to our first guided day out which included a boat trip to Coquet Island.  Martin picked us up Monday morning, and clearly knew exactly which sites to visit, including East Chevington, Druridge Pools, Cresswell Ponds, the Amble river and estuary and, of course, Coquet Island.  We saw a fantastic array of waders at most of these sites, including Curlew Sandpiper, plus Little Gull, Garganey and plenty more.  We were also treated to an Otter fishing at East Chevington.  But the main reason for the trip was to see Roseate Tern which breed at Coquet Island.  We thought we’d seen a few of these at the beach at Embleton on the Saturday, but weren’t 100% sure, so it was nice to see a small number at Coquet.  I’d love to show you a close-up photo, but you can’t land at Coquet and the sea was rather choppy so getting any photo was difficult.  The tern in the bottom left of the picture below is a Roseate – largely black bill, longish red legs and a faint pink blush underneath.

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On Monday evening we encountered two more organisational issues.  Firstly, I’d booked us into a pizza restaurant and a hotel restaurant on the Monday and Tuesday nights, but failed to check which night I’d booked each restaurant for.  So we turned up at the hotel on Monday night, but they couldn’t find our booking (because we’d made it for the Tuesday night).  Fortunately they had space, but then on the Tuesday we tried to go to the pizza restaurant and ended up back at the hotel, because the pizza restaurant was full.

Martin was supposed to take us to the Farne’s on Tuesday, but he fell ill and was taken to hospital, so we ended up doing them on our own.  What an amazing place!  I’ve never been so close to sea birds in my life.  This young Shag was being fed by its parents (head down the parent’s throat style) literally inches from my shoe.

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Even though it was quite late in the summer, there were still plenty of Puffin running around the island and plenty more on the sea and overhead.  This one posed nicely on the top of the cliff with fish in its beak waiting for me to take a photo before flying off to its young.

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On the Wednesday we were booked on a four hour “pelagic” trip from North Shields which left at 6pm, so, against our better judgement, we decided to visit the National Trust property inland at Cragside during the day, which was in the general direction of North Shields.  We didn’t bother looking around the house (although it looked very impressive from the outside), instead spending time walking around the gardens and huge grounds.  We ended up very glad that we’d gone, as on one of the tarns in the grounds we found a Black Darter, distinguished from other darters both on its size (it is the UK’s smallest dragonfly) and by the black triangle on its thorax.

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The boat trip that evening ended up being very wet, but at least the sea was completely calm.  Not much to see although we did get some brief views of White-beaked Dolphin and a single Manx Shearwater.  We got home after 11pm with Tom asleep on the back seat.

Our final day was spent walking along the coast path – finding our own Wood Sandpiper on Newton Pool and watching three Spoonbill fly over Embleton beach.  There were several jellyfish washed up on the beach – we believe this one is a Lion’s Mane – you can’t really get a sense of scale from the photograph, so you’ll have to believe me when I say it was over a foot across.

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One thing we noticed about the farmland around our cottage was that it was packed with Yellowhammers and Tree Sparrows – two birds we don’t see so often where we live in Suffolk.  There were also large numbers of hirundines – again far more than we see in Suffolk.  I particularly enjoyed the evenings sitting at the back of the house watching the House Martins and Swallows swooping by the window catching their evening’s dinner.  Here is a Tree Sparrow that was sitting on our roof.

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On the way home we stopped overnight in our favourite Lincolnshire pub – the Red Lion at Partney.  This gave us time to stop at the RSPB reserve at Frampton Marsh the following morning – there were a huge number of Black-tailed Godwit here (over 1000) plus four Spoonbill, two Green Sandpiper and quite a number of Ruff, Snipe and Little Ringed Plover.  I’ve no pictures from Frampton though, so I’ll end with one of two very cute young Kittiwake from the Farne Islands.

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Costa Rica – Part 10 – The End

It has been less than three weeks since we got back from Costa Rica but already it seems like it was ages ago.  Having looked forward to the holiday for 9 months, it was over far too quickly.  Our last hotel was Hotel Sevegre which was inland and several thousand feet above sea level – this made it much cooler although in the early afternoon it still felt pretty hot to me.  Just before arriving there we made a short detour to go to the top of one of the higher peaks in Costa Rica at an elevation of around 11,000 feet.  I won’t forget Tom’s comment as the view came into sight near the top and he said with wonder in his voice “We’re level with the sky Daddy!”.  Unfortunately, a few minutes after getting out of the bus, Tom (and a couple of others) were hit with altitude sickness and had to get back onboard.  However when we found the bird we were looking for, Tom did manage to get out of the bus briefly to have a look.  Here it is – the Volcano Junco.

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The habitat at the top of this mountain is known as Paramo and this was the first time I’d seen it – a strange mix of bamboo-like shrubs and heather-like plants.

Hotel Sevegre had beautiful gardens and a fast-flowing river next door (on which we saw Torrent Tyrannulet but no American Dipper).  Once again, almost immediately after arrival we added another set of species to our list – the species this high up are different from those at sea level.  One of these was a must-see bird for Tom – the Collared Redstart.

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We also added our final woodpecker of the trip – the Acorn Woodpecker which I think is one of my favourites.  There were 13 woodpeckers on the list of possible species for the trip and we ended up seeing 11 of them.

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There were also some new tanagers which were really stunning birds to look at, including this Spangle-cheeked Tanager (what a great name!)

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But of course, there was one bird that everyone wanted to see here – the Resplendent Quetzal.  Fortunately, the day before, a guide had found a possible nest site right by the road and had seen a pair of Quetzal in the area.  We drove the short distance to this site on our first morning here and then settled in to wait (at a polite distance).  I think we had been there a little over an hour when the shout went up from another group about 100 yards back along the road.  I think nearly everyone in our group broke into a gentle canter at this point, but we needn’t have bothered as we were treated to over an hour of incredible views of these birds.  At one point both male and female were sitting just a couple of yards apart on the same branch.  These birds were on pretty much everyone’s top six birds of the holiday.  I found them very hard to photograph – but if you look closely at the picture below you can see I did get the whole bird in – from the bill in the top left to the tip of its tail in the bottom right.

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I suppose I should end there, but even the last morning before we went back to the airport added some species to the list – Tom found a Chestnut-capped Brush Finch when we were out for a family walk before breakfast, and then in a field next to a supermarket car park where we’d stopped for a short break, there was an Eastern Meadowlark singing.

And that really was it!  No more birds: just a long wait, a long flight, a long drive and hopefully very long-lasting memories left.

Costa Rica – Part 9 – Tarcoles and Carara

We stayed at Villa Lapas (close to the Tarcoles river and Carara National park) for three nights, before ending the holiday at Hotel Sevegre in the cloud forest where the Quetzal lives.  Both hotels were excellent, and as usual we saw a different selection of birds at each.

The boat trip on the Tarcoles River will stay with me for a very long time.  It was supposed to be the trip on which you saw crocodiles, and we did see one, but there were two reasons why I remember the trip.  The first was being on a boat surrounded by Magnificent Frigatebirds as they swooped down to dip their bellies in the water – presumably to cool off.  They came very close to the boat, and are hugely impressive birds!

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But my “magic moment” of the whole trip actually came from a bird that most people wouldn’t consider particularly rare or exotic.   A pair of Mangrove Swallows followed our boat for nearly the whole trip, sometimes landing on the prow, roof or stern.  At one point, one of the swallows flew alongside the boat at exactly my eye level and keeping pace exactly with the boat.  It was perhaps a metre away from me and it felt like one of those cleverly filmed sequences in a David Attenborough film – except that it was just for me and could never be played again.   I managed to get a poor photo of the bird who unknowingly gave me so much pleasure.

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Now – back to the exotic.  The Tarcoles river area was exceptionally good for a large variety of birds.  There were plenty of waders and herons (with a large group of egret circling overhead as the sun went down over the Pacific).  There was a pair of Motmot clinging to a muddy bank and several bright yellow Prothonotary Warblers in amongst the Mangroves.  The star of the show for exoticness though has to be the Scarlet Macaw.

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Villas Lapas had lovely grounds and was close to a river, so there was a good selection of birds to see without even leaving the hotel.  There were Spiny-tailed Iguanas on the lawns and roosting bats attached to the overhanging roofs outside the bedrooms.  We were also lucky enough to see three Painted Buntings – lucky being the key word here.  One of the other guests had spent 15 minutes taking photographs of them before wandering over to us to show us the pictures and ask what they were.  We both screamed “Painted Bunting” at the same moment before running off to find them.  A brilliant name for this bird in my opinion.

 

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Our guide also managed to find us a Baird’s Trogon – this was one of the more difficult trogons to find, although for me they were ALL hard to find as they simply sit completely still on a branch.  Only their call gives them away but even then it took us a good 30 minutes to locate this bird.

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Our guides were also incredibly good at spotting things from the bus.  This Collared Forest Falcon was found as the bus was leaving Villa Lapas one morning – we reversed up and were all treated to fantastic views.

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On leaving Villa Lapas, we (of course) stopped for lunch at a place with Hummingbird feeders.  This place was fairly high in the mountains, so not only did we get hummingbirds, we also saw another new set of species, including Mountain Thrush and a crazy looking finch called the Yellow-thighed Finch.  If you’ve ever seen a black bumblebee with big yellow pollen bags on its legs then you’ll have a rough idea of what this finch looked like!  I didn’t get a good photo of that unfortunately, so you’ll have to make do with another one of the Magnificent Hummingbird.  It is worth pointing out that the colours on a hummingbird will vary depending on what angle you are looking at it from, but I think I got the angle right on this one!

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And finally – another hummingbird.  There was some debate as to whether this was a Volcano or a Scintillant, but the guides in the end plumped for the former.  It doesn’t really matter what it is called though – it let me get within a metre and is a such a beautiful bird.

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Just one more instalment to go!

Costa Rica – Part 8 – Animals

For me, this trip was all about the birds, but I expect many of you are getting slightly bored only hearing about the birds we saw.  There were plenty of reptiles, amphibians and mammals for us to enjoy as well.  I think for some members of the group, these were even better than the birds, but whilst I obviously enjoyed watching the other animals, they didn’t give me the joy that seeing a new and exciting bird gives me.  There was one exception – the Margay.  We were leaving Arenal in the bus when one of the staff waved us down and spoke to Paco.  He turned round to us and said that a wild Margay had been coming to the kitchens here for a few years and that it was just around the corner – did we want to see it?  There was only one answer to that question!  Look at its eyes – amazing animal!

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Tom’s favourite animal of the entire trip was the White-nosed Coati.  He was desperate to see one and gutted to miss one that came at lunch time to Selva Verde – just after we’d headed back to the room.  The following day at lunch he was asking Roy exactly where it had been seen.  Roy pointed over his shoulder and Tom said “There it is now!” and ran off to watch it!  However it was at Arenal that we got the best views with Tom able to stand still and allow them to literally come within inches of him.

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At Tortuguero we saw plenty of sloths of both the two-toed and the three-toed variety.  However a baby sloth left to sun itself on a tree that hung over the river easily won the prize for the best view.  The great thing about these animals is that they really cannot be bothered to move away from you!

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I think the animal that most surprised the guides was the Tamandua – these are arboreal ant-eaters and Roy had previously only had brief glimpses of these in the trees.  At Solimar cattle ranch there was one eating termites on the ground.  Like the sloths, he didn’t seem at all bothered about the ring of British people pointing cameras at him.

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I couldn’t finish off the mammals without mentioning the monkeys!  We struggled to find White-faced Capuchin which surprised the guides but we did eventually get one brief sighting.  However we had excellent views of the Spider Monkeys including watching a troupe of them swinging around in the branches behaving exactly as you’d expect monkeys to behave!  The commonest sightings however were of the Howler Monkeys – in some hotels we were woken by their howls at 4am every morning.  There were also quite a few baby Howler Monkeys around.  Getting photos of monkeys in the treetops is quite challenging, and I’m afraid the picture below was the best I could do.

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I was surprised there weren’t more dragonflies and butterflies – we did see plenty (including Owl butterflies which are huge and the Blue Morpho which is bright electric blue), but in terms of raw numbers I expected there to be more.   We also didn’t find quite as many frogs as I expected, although we did see the iconic Strawberry Poison Dart Frog.  The biggest and scariest animal was easily the American Crocodile.   These look scary on TV, but when you see a group of them in the wild you really understand that if you fell into that stretch of river you’d have zero chance against them.

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Our best views of crocodiles were from a bridge looking down.  However our best view of a Caiman came from a boat in Tortuguero.  Nearly all of us missed it to start with – it was just hanging in the water about 2 feet from the boat looking almost exactly like a small branch.  The boat was almost completely past it before the guide at the back pointed it out.

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There were plenty of Black River Turtles – the picture below being one of my favourites as you get a free Basilisk on the turtle on the left.

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There are plenty more animals to show you, but I’m running out of space.  So to finish – a Spiny-tailed Iguana.  These were everywhere at Villa Lapas and allowed people to get within a few feet of them.  When you look at one closely, you see that they are stunningly beautiful animals – much more than “just a lizard”.

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Costa Rica – Part 7 – Pacific Coast

After leaving the relative cool of Arenal, it was a bit of a shock to descend to the Pacific coast.  However the heat on the coast was a dry heat rather than having the humidity of the forests and so most of us coped pretty well with it.  More importantly, the drive to La Ensenada Lodge in Guanacaste involved a stop at some salt pans and for the first time in the trip we got to see a proper set of waders (which as many of you will know, are the birds I spend the most time with in Suffolk).  I find waders hard to photograph,  and I think a view of the salt pans is better to give you an impression of just how many birds there were.

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If you look carefully in the above photograph you might be able to pick out Hudsonian Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern and Cabot’s Tern (a recent split from our Sandwich Tern) in addition to the Marbled Godwit and Black-necked Stilt in the foreground.

We only had one night at La Ensenada and after Arenal we were warned that it might appear a little “rustic”.  But in fact, everyone loved staying there, and looking at the Pacific at sunrise was beautiful (especially as there were some unexpected Surfbirds sitting on the pier).

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The other thing that was memorable about this place were the White-throated Magpie-Jays that hovered around the breakfast tables, swooping in whenever they saw an opportunity to steal some fruit.

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I think most of the group will also remember the drive to get there in the evening – we were running a little late so I don’t think Paco really wanted to stop, but Tom suddenly yelled out “Motmot, Motmot” over and over again until the bus stopped.  He then started yelling “Reverse, reverse” over and over again until the bus was in the right position!  And sure enough, sitting on a washing line at the back of someone’s garden was a Turquoise-browed Motmot!  The photo below was taken the next day at Ensenada.

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Before heading on to our next destination, we spent a morning at Solimar – a nearby cattle ranch which has large flooded areas good for wetland species.  We picked up a local guide for this visit, as he knew where owls were roosting and this proved very worthwhile as we added Pacific Screech-Owl and Spectacled Owl to our lists.  We also got stunning views of Double-striped Thick-knee from our minibus!

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There plenty of wetland birds here – I won’t list them all, but the best included Jabiru, Wood Stork, Southern Lapwing and Black-bellied Whistling Duck.  We also got a few raptors including Osprey and Snail Kite.

There were a couple of stops on the way to our second last hotel – Villa Lapas.  The first was by the beach to watch Brown Pelican and Magnificent Frigatebirds and the second was on a dirt track where Manakins had been seen previously.  We didn’t see Manakins there, but we did get amazing views of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl!

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Only three blogs to go!  Villa Lapas (the subject of the next blog) was our last stop in a hot rainforest before we ascended into the mountains to spend time in a Cloud Forest looking for Resplendent Quetzal.  And then, if any of you can stand reading more about Costa Rica, I’ll finish with a summary of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and other creatures that we saw.

Costa Rica – Part 6 – Arenal

Apologies if regular readers of this blog are getting bored of Costa Rica and are wishing that I was writing about Suffolk again, but I’m having too much fun re-living my holiday to stop now.

We were impressed with our first hotels in San Jose and Tortuguero, and the lodge at Selve Verde was a step up from them.  So we were wondering what to expect when we arrived at the Arenal Observatory Lodge – amazingly it was even better than the previous places.  Our room had a lovely private balcony from which we immediately found some Band-backed Wrens and we were able to see the volcano and watch the Toucans coming in to roost without leaving our room.

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There was a viewing platform at the rear of the restaurant from where the above photo was taken – note the bird feeder in the foreground on the right of the picture!  There was another table feeder lower down which was often visited by Great Curassow and there were plenty of Crested Guan in the grounds as well.   The photo of a Crested Guan below is actually one of my favourite shots of the whole trip.

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Arenal was many people’s favourite place of the trip and I can understand why – for us it was memorable as the place where Tom had his first close encounter with a White-nosed Coati.  These are wild animals but are reasonably tame around the feeders and the hotel grounds.  There was one other wild animal that very occasionally came to the kitchens at this hotel – a Margay!  You’ll have to wait for the mammal blog to find out if we saw it!

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Once we had arrived at Arenal, most of our time was spent on trails from the hotel – it was nice to not do any driving for a few days.  It did rain heavily one morning (the clouds were so low you couldn’t see any of the volcano), but there were covered viewing areas from which we could watch the feeders so we were still kept happy.

At the end of our stay, we drove a short distance down the entrance road to a small river where we saw our only Fasciated Tiger Heron plus this rather lovely Green Kingfisher.

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This was also where we got another one of those fantastic views of rare hawks (remember that Tiny Hawk at La Selva?).  This time it was a Bicoloured Hawk which even Paco, our local guide, had hardly ever seen.  Its rufous-thighs give its identification away.

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I’m going to finish this section with pictures of two birds from families that most of us wouldn’t call exotic.  In the UK we only have one pigeon and four doves and apart from the Turtle Dove, none of these tend to make headlines.  In Costa Rica there are around 25 species in this family, including this Pale-vented Pigeon.

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And finally – Costa Rica’s national bird – the Clay-coloured Thrush.  This bird could be found everywhere and it was the only bird apart from vultures that we saw every day of the holiday.  It isn’t gaudy or loud – but it is friendly and reminded us of the blackbirds in our garden back home.

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Costa Rica – Part 5 – Interlude

Any hardcore photographers reading this, please look away now.  All the photos below were taken at feeders in Costa Rica which I realise is “cheating” but I don’t care.  Before heading to Arenal, we visited one more site about an hour out of Selva Verde – and it was well worth it for the close views of the birds.  Here is a brief selection.

Firstly, a Prong-billed Barbet (left) and a Silver-throated Tanager.  I don’t need to say anything about these birds – just enjoy their beauty.

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The Red-headed Barbet below was actually in Tom’s top six birds of the holiday.  For once, the female is just as attractive as the male, so I’m treating you to a photo of each.

Next, a Common Chlorospingus – not the most colourful of birds, but I’ve included it because of its name.

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Now for another hummingbird – plenty more of these to come in later blogs.  This is a Green Violeteer at a feeder.

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A Baltimore Oriole next …

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… and Tom has asked me to include this photo of some tanagers arguing over the bananas.

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Next – Arenal Observatory Lodge.