In the wet lowlands, it’s always humid and the rain can arrive as a steady misting sprinkle or as (most often) as a sudden downpour with billions of huge drops that pound the zinc roofs with sodden fury. It’s so wet that if you don’t make an effort to dry out the clothes in your closet, your wardrobe will be supporting its very own ecosystem of molds and fungi (I once had mushrooms growing on my backpack in Amazonian Ecuador). If you visit the rainy, lower elevations of Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean Slope where 6 meters per year can fall (that’s about 18 feet for us metric illiterate Americans), you can expect to get wet even with an umbrella or poncho but you probably won’t have to worry about fog.
For that, you have to head upslope into the cloud forest. Just as humid as the rainforests of the lowlands but with cooler temperatures, this is where the clouds that water the lowlands like to hang out. With a blanket of thick moisture blocking the sun and providing a constant aerial mist that waters an amazing abundance of plants, living is this life zone is probably like residing in a rather cool, shaded greenhouse. It would be challenging to deal with the constant moisture but you could cultivate orchids instead of roses would also have a heck of an interesting yard list. At least this is how my birding friend Janet Peterson and I felt while birding the Varablanca area last week.
Inspired by Skutch’s accounts of studying Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the same area, we searched for fruiting Lauraceae tree species that might attract these fancy, uncommon birds. Although we didn’t get lucky in finding a single fruiting Lauraceae, nor did we hear a single bellbird, it was still a beautiful day of birding in Costa Rica.
Deforestation since Skutch’s time equates to fewer bellbirds and cotingas but a lot more meadowlarks.
The views up there were stunning.
One of our best spots was at a site along the road between Poas and Varablanca not too far from the Poas Volcano Lodge. While the smells of home-cooked food and the usual sounds of rural Costa Rica (chickens clucking, roosters crowing, a dog or two barking, someone hammering, a bit of music) reached our ears from nearby houses, we watched a fair variety of cloud forest species in trees that grew out of a ravine next to the road. This meant that we could look straight into the canopy of these trees but because we were in the cloud forest life zone, we mostly watched birds through a shifting veil of mist.
Band-tailed Pigeons were common. We could hear them flapping their way around but they rarely landed within view. Maybe this one felt safe because it thought it was blending into its cloudy surroundings.
There were also a few Dark Pewees around.
Other birds were building nests nearby such as the Mountain Elaenia. This has to be one of the most common highland flycatchers. They thrive in edge habitats and sometimes seem to outnumber Rufous-collared Sparrows.
Our favorite sighting, though, was of a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were building a nest in a bromeliad on a nearby tree. You almost always hear this little gem before you see it and when birding in dense forest often don’t see it at all. They make a soft, short whistled call that is easy to imitate and often brings them in close. Due to their cloud forest habitat, their brilliant emerald, powder blue, and bright yellow plumage often looks as muted as their call until the mist lifts and they suddenly shine like some incredible forest jewel.
A female in the mist.
And a male in the mist.
The male Chlorophonia trying to blend in with a bromeliad.
And then as the mist lifted a bit, the male’s colors became more bright.
Other birds in the vicinity were Wilson’s Warbler (a common winter resident of the highlands),
and Flame-colored Tanager.
Mountain Robins provided a background soundtrack throughout the morning. To me, they sound more like some type of yellowthroat than a thrush. Click the following link to listen to one that singing at the ravine: mountainrobin1
Past the ravine, we ventured down the Cinchona road a bit. The road is good up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens but beyond that is officially closed because of the threat of landslides. Despite a large, obvious sign that warned of the danger, a number of cars and motorcycles just drove right on past on their way to the lowlands. I suspect that one could drive the road all the way to Sarapiqui, but why risk your life? Stick to birding the upper part like we did and you should see a good number of species in any case. Some of the other good birds we saw were:
Resplendent Quetzal- one heard and a female seen as it flew across the road near Carrizal,
Blue-throated (Emerald) Toucanet- several of these beautiful birds,
Green Violetear and Coppery-headed Emerald at flowering Inga species,
and Spangle-cheeked Tanager,
Although we didn’t see any cotingas, I bet they are still up there somewhere. Hopefully I will figure out where the fruiting Lauraceae are on my next visit to the area.