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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Barva Volcano Birding in Costa Rica

Last weekend, I finally got the chance to visit the Barva Sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park after years of hoping to check out this site. Despite seeing its welcoming, jade-green vegetation beckoning from a distance on a daily basis, I hadn’t become acquainted with the upper reaches of Barva Volcano because of the difficulties in accessing this mountain with public transportation. Last weekend, though, a friend of mine who teaches at the European School was bringing a group of students up to Barva for some hiking and had one extra space in the bus. My friend graciously offered me that coveted little seat and I finally got the chance to see the Barva Sector for some recon and birding.

Meeting up at the European School in San Pablo de Heredia (you always have to mention the “de Heredia” part because there might also be a “San Pablo de Cartago” or “de Limon” or “de who knows what else”), the old, riparian growth behind the school contrasted with the nearby car-exhausted streets and over-profusion of concrete to provide a sanctuary for birds and other animals that somehow manage to hang on in the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers called from the undergrowth while Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers complained about the White-tailed Kite that was conspicuously perched at the top of a bare tree. The resemblance this raptor has to a gull during flight never fails to impress me. Really, if you think you see a gull anywhere inland in Costa Rica, it’s probably one of those graceful White-tailed Kites. Although this will sound like an extreme non-event to most birders, I also got my first Mourning Dove of the year. These aren’t too common in Costa Rica and I needed it for my Big Year (which is coming along slowly yet steadily).

After waiting for the few compulsory late students, our bus joined the stream of traffic moving through Heredia and made our way towards Barva Volcano. Not to be confused with the volcano (although like the roads here it is certainly confusing), we passed through the town of Barva and followed the brown volcano signs on curvy roads that threaded their way uphill through coffee plantations. I wish I could tell you which roads we actually took but since no roads are signed, all I can suggest is that you follow the brown volcano signs, or better yet use a GPS. Some of the rental cars have fantastic GPS systems that show your car moving along Costa Rica’s confusing labyrinth of roads- I personally wish I had one of those showing me walking through the maze of streets. That way I could faithfully walk with purpose to my destination instead of walking with purpose to the next pulperia to ask for directions that are usually about as sound as Costa Rica’s active fault lines.

After around 40 minutes of ascending through pastures, coffee plantations, and patches of cloud forest that would be worth birding, we stopped when the asphalt gave out. My friend then informed us that the hiking was to commence! Three ks uphill to the ranger station and then on into the park. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep up with those energy-filled adolescents because I simply couldn’t. They seemed to race on uphill through the rarified, 2,000 plus meter air while I slowly trudged up the road wishing that I had an oxygen tank. Although I was carrying a scope and more gear than them, I discovered that I was much more out of shape than I had realized! This was not a happy discovery but at least moving more slowly meant that I had a better chance at getting bird pics. Well, that’s what I thought until in addition to this self realization that I needed to exercise more often, I also found out during the course of the day that highland birds are far from sluggish. On the contrary, most are dowright hyperactive which makes them very difficult to get pictures of (hence the general lack of photos in this post).

Although the birds were tough to photograph, at least the scenery was nice. From this high vantage point, I could see the dreadful extent of urbanization that has occurred in the Central Valley and be grateful for the fresh, mountain scented air.

The walk up those three ks to the ranger station was OK for birding in pastures with remnant, massive oak trees but got better once the high elevation forests of the park were reached. Species I had on the way up were flybys of Band-tailed Pigeons, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Blue and white Swallow, Mountain Robin, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstarts, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and a whole mess of Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Cool, massive, oak tree at least 300 years old.

One of the many Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Slim pickings overall really with the most interesting birds being Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds concentrated around a large flowering bush.

Here is a nice, little female Volcano Hummingbird.

The area around the station was pleasant for birding and just hanging out. There were a few picnic tables amidst good, high elevation habitat. As at most high elevation sites in Costa Rica, a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush was hopping around and being friendly (I love friendly birds- they get named extra-friendly when they pose for pictures).

Extra friendly Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.

Many other birds came to the ranger station and although I didn’t see any Quetzals, I am sure they show up now and then. From the ranger station, the road gently ascends to lagoons, an overlook, and a couple of trails. I never made it to the lagoons as I took the “Cacho de Venado” trail. The trail was beautiful and the birding good in high elevation forest with sections of interesting elfin forest.

Main trail for Barva.

High elevation forests always have this enchanting, mystical appeal for me. Whether it’s the pleasant climate, lack of mosquitoes, or lack of oxygen that makes you think you are seeing birds that never existed, a visit is always thrilling (at least during rare, nice weather). The huge, old trees are covered in moss and some look like the “dark side of the force” tree on Dagobah.

Dagobah-like tree sans visions of Darth Vader or the far scarier Jar Jar Binks.

Striking red bromeliad- an adaptation for the high UV index typical of high elevations in the tropics.

On Barva, the tinkling calls of Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers filtered down from the canopy while Black-faced Solitaires sang their beautiful, etheral songs from the understory. Mixed flocks were pretty common and included quite a few Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers. Here is a young one that was friendly.

Other bird species I saw or heard in the forest and at the station were Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo (just one), Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous Wren, Black-cheeked Warbler, Zeledonia (one heard), Spangled-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches (too hyperactive to be friendly), and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

This young Chlorophonia was friendly enough.

We left Barva when as it started to rain around 1 P.M. Although I would love to visit the peaceful, quiet woods of Barva again, it probably won’t happen until we get a car. By then, though, we should be living in nearby Santa Barbara de Heredia and so might visit on a regular basis.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds; Identification Issues

Last weekend, I escaped the Central Valley to guide the BCCR (Birding Club of Costa Rica) trip to Baru near Dominical. The drive to Dominical is always interesting as the most direct route from San Jose traverses the high Talamancan mountains. Once you find your way to Cartago (which would be fairly easy if the signs were located a few blocks before the turn-offs instead of after them) and get on the road to San Isidro, the highway quickly ascends the fantastic Talamancan Mountain Range. Although the scenery is nice, it is particularly fantastic because most of this rugged cordillera is cloaked in high elevation rain forest. Just after departing Cartago, the road passes through and near beautiful cloud forest that probably holds a bunch of rare birds. Although there isn’t any good way to bird it from the highway, at least Tapanti National Park provides access to this forest type for excellent birding.

As the road twists and turns its way up Cerro de la Muerte (the name of this mountain), it passes through interesting looking stands of lichen covered Alders and old growth oak forests with an amazing profusion of epiphytes, mosses, and bromeliads on their branches, and passes by the turn-off to San Gerardo de Dota- the valley where most birders stay when ticking high elevation Talamancan endemics. Further on, the highway passes by the entrance to the Paraiso de Quetzales (Quetzal Paradise) where Eddie Serrano can take you on a short tour to see Resplendent Quetzals. He also has cabins now, but like several places, has unfortunately raised prices over the past few years.

Still ascending, the highway reaches its highest points in the paramo zone above the treeline (aside from visiting the Irazu crater, this area is the most accessible site for Volcano Junco). About 15 minutes (?) after the paramo, La Georgina is found on the left side of the road. This roadside diner offers good, traditional food and even better high elevation birding. A steep trail behind the place goes through primary forest and harbors all high elevation forest species of the Talamancas, while the feeders just outside the windows of the diner provide opportunities for studying Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. Although Volcano Hummingbirds and Gray-tailed Mountain-gems are present, they mostly stick to the garden and forest, leaving the feeders to the two larger species. Similar in size, Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds can look quite similar as they both have long, straight bills, and a small, white, postocular spot. Feeders, though, at least provide the opportunity to study the differences between these two high elevation hummingbird species.

Structurally, the Fiery-throated is daintier with a more needle-like bill,

while the Magnificent is a bit more grandiose because of its larger bill size.

A close look at the bills also reveals one of the easiest ways to separate them. Note the reddish on the lower mandible of this Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

while that of the Magnificent is entirely black.

Of course the color differences seem to be obvious too but like most hummingbirds, the colors you see depend upon how the light is reflected off of their feathers. At first, none of these birds showed these glittering plumages that resemble finely jeweled chain mail. They just looked like large, dark hummingbirds until the flash of the camera revealed their colorful secrets.

Another way to separate them when their colors aren’t evident, is by the more defined gorget that the Magnificent shows. Even if this patch of beryl-green is not visible, the gorget stands out as a darker throat, something that the Fiery-throated lacks. It also lacks the distinctive face pattern shown by the female Magnificent.

Our stop at La Georgina was a short one, but I will make up for that by visiting soon to get all the high elevation species needed for my BIG YEAR.