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Birding Costa Rica feeders high elevations Hummingbirds

New Hummingbird Garden and feeders near Poas, Costa Rica

On of the nicest things about hummingbirds is that most species will happily visit feeders and guard them with belligerant viligance. This is such a boon because they can be so difficult to watch in forested habitats. Those glittering feathered sprites seem to be particularly speciose in cloud forests but you wouldn’t know it just by walking through the forest.  This is because a typical stroll through mossy, foggy cloud forest results in a fair number of flyby hummingbirds but rather few good sightings where you positively identify them. The experience usually plays out like this:

“chip…CHIP…chip…chp”

“A hummingbird just flew by!”

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know, it’s gone.”

“Did you get a look at it”?

“No.”

The frustrating snippet above then happens five more times before you get a good look at a perched bird and even then, it’s usually a small, dark silhouette that either goes unidentified or leaves you feeling cheated because the supposedly jewel-like plumage of the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem looked about as colorful as a shadow in a dark closet.

Now don’t get me wrong, watching hummingbirds in tropical forest doesn’t have to always be this way. If you are careful about it, intently watch the flowers they prefer, and have a quick eye, you can certainly get satisfying looks at hummingbirds. However, it’s always easier when you have a mix of flowering bushes and hanging feeders placed near forest and trees that hummingbirds can use for protection (from predators and hazards such as large raindrops). Costa Rica has its fair share of hummingbird magnets that match this description and some of the best are found near Poas Volcano.

The most well known is the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The massive plantings of Porterweed at this tourist attraction attract a huge number of hummingbirds, including uncommon species such as Black-bellied. BUT, you have to pay $30 (or more) just to hang out and watch them. If you don’t want to dish out such a high entrance fee, hang out long enough by the feeders at the resurrected hummingbird gallery soda at Cinchona and you will see most of the same species. Then, head back upslope towards Varablanca, take a right  towards Poas and keep going until you see a restaurant on the left called, “Cocina Costarricense”.

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Check out the feeders in front of the window.

Stop in and have a bite to eat or a drink and watch the hummingbird action at their feeders. The owner told me that they get more birds during the wet season but I still had a good number of species while guiding clients in the area last week. Species seen were Volcano Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violetear, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, and Magnificent Hummingbird.

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Green-crowned Brilliants like to pose. I thought this one looked kind of like a living sculpture.

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Female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems look about as nice as the males.

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I can think of other hummingbird species more magnificent than this one but that’s it’s name so what are you gonna do.

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Green Violetears may be common but that doesn’t take away from their looks.

In addition to hummingbirds, that general area is also good for other highland species such as Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, and Yellow-winged Vireo among others.

If you don’t like to include a large window, feeders, and weathered steel rods in your hummingbird pictures, head back down the road towards Varablanca and take a right towards Alajuela. Follow that road for a kilometer or two until you see a restaurant called, “Freddy Fresas” on the left. You can park right in front, and if you like stuff made with strawberries or darn good deserts (especially for Costa Rica), make sure to visit this place. The non-strawberry food is pretty good too as is the service. There is, however, an even better reason for patronizing Freddie and his friends- they maintain a beautiful garden replete with walkways, fountains, flowers, a trail through riparian cloud forest, and hummingbird feeders. Oh yeah, and it’s free too! The entrance is a white gate located just across the street from Freddy Fresas and as long as it’s open, you can just walk right on in and hang out with the birds.

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Freddy Fresas

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Their garden across the street has feeders

and big leaves!

I still need to bird the trail down to the stream as I have been told that quetzals are sometimes seen there. The hummingbird feeders are set up near the forest edge and appeared to host the same species as the restaurant up the hill except that Volcano Hummingbirds were replaced by Scintillants. I could also take pictures with more natural settings:

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A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

I will be making more visits to this hidden treasure because it’s not too far from the house, it’s underbirded, and it might hold some surprises. However, the main reason I will be visiting this site from time to time is because my daughter is crazy about strawberries so  keep an eye out for updates!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Hummingbirds middle elevations

Birding El Toucanet Lodge, Costa Rica

Two weekends ago, I finally got the chance to experience El Toucanet Lodge near Copey de Dota, Costa Rica. This highland birding site has popped up on the Costa Rican birding grapevine on a number of occasions so I was enthused about birding there while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. I have guided a number of birders who have enthralled me with tales of El Toucanet’s exciting hummingbird action, easy views of quetzals, great food, and quality hospitality. After staying there, I echo their sentiments and definitely recommend the place when birding the Talamancas.

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The majority of birders get their fill of high elevation birding in Costa Rica at Savegre Mountain Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota. Since the oak forests there are more accessible than at El Toucanet, you can’t go wrong with birding at Savegre Mountain Lodge, but it’s also more expensive. For a more moderately priced option, El Toucanet is $30 cheaper per night on average and is situated at a lower elevation with drier forest that turns up an interesting suite of species. In addition to good birding around the hotel, birders who come with a rental vehicle will find it to be a good site to use as a base for birding higher elevations.

At the lodge itself, two hummingbird feeders were enough to entertain us with views of the following species:

Violet Sabrewing

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Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

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Green Violetear

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Magenta-throated Woodstar

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Scintillant Hummingbird

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Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

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and the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

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There were also camera shy Green-crowned Brilliants, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and in flowering Ingas on the property, a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds. White-throated Mountain-Gems, and Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds seen at higher elevations gave us a respectable total of thirteen hummingbirds species seen during our stay.

On the non-hummingbird side of page, some of the highlights at the lodge and in nearby, similar habitats were Dark Pewee (common), Barred Becard (fairly common), Spotted Wood-Quail (heard only although they sometimes show up at the lodge), Collared Trogon, Black and white Becard (very uncommon species in Costa Rica), and Rough-legged Tyrannulet. Much to my chagrin, this last bird was also a heard only as it would have been a lifer! I tried calling it in but the bird just wouldn’t come close enough to see it- all the more reason to head back up there!

Flame-colored Tanagers were fairly common and came to the lodge feeders once in a while

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but the lodge namesake seemed to be pretty uncommon. We still saw a few Emerald Toucanets but not as many as I had expected; maybe they are more common at other times of the year or are down in numbers like the Resplendent Quetzal. As with other areas in Costa Rica, the wacky fruiting season seems to have had an impact upon quetzal numbers so it took us a few days to actually see one. This is in contrast to the norm at El Tocuanet whereby guests often view more than one of these fancy birds on the daily quetzal tour (free for guests).

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A Resplendent Quetzal near El Toucanet being resplendent.

One of our best birdies during our visit was Silver-throated Jay. This tough endemic needs primary highland oak forest and, at El Tocuanet, is only regularly found at higher elevations where the road to Providencia flattens out. It was nice to get this rarity for the year even if it was a pain to get clear views of it in the densely foliaged crowns of massive, moss-draped oaks. That same area also hosted three or four calling, unseen Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, the aforementioned high elevation hummingbirds, and a mixed flock highlighted by Buffy Tuftedcheeks. We also had our weirdest bird of the trip in that area- a Magnificent Frigatebird! If it wanted to masquerade as an American Swallow-tailed Kite, those raptors weren’t buying it and demonstrated their discontent by dive-bombing the modern day Pterodactyl.

We also had calling quetzals around there, and at night, heard Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. During our after dark excursion, we tried for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet but didn’t get any response. Maybe it occurs at higher elevations? Maybe it just doesn’t like birders? No matter because I am going to get that feathered gnome before 2011 comes to an end!

Our final morning was when we got the quetzal (thanks to the owners son Kenny who whistled it in) in addition to being our best morning of birding. Streak-breasted Treehunter hung out at a nesting hole (burrow) in a quarry. Barred Becard and bathing Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers entertained in the same area. Tufted Flycatchers, migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Dark Pewee were sallying off perches like jumping jack flash, and Yellow-bellied Siskins did what all birds should do-

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sing from exposed, eye level perches for long periods of time at close distances. Challenges are OK but relaxed, easy birding is always better!

One drawback to birding near El Toucanet is that hunting still occurs in the area. We didn’t see any guys with guns or floppy eared, baying dogs, but we were told that locals do hunt in the Los Santos Forest Reserve (illegally). I suspected as much because of the flighty behavior of birds in the area (except at El Toucanet where they know they are safe). Even so, aside from making it a bit more challenging to watch birds close up, I doubt that it affects the birding all that much. Black Guans are probably more difficult to see but you may still have a good chance for them when birding the long road through Providencia and the highway. Much of this underbirded road cuts through beautiful forest. If you have the time and vehicle, please bird it and let us know what you see! I plan on surveying the road sometime this year and will blog about it.

In the meantime, check out El Toucanet! I bet the area around the lodge holds more surprises, the fireplace is certifiably cozy, the food very good, and the owners as nice as can be.

Here was a very cool surprise that I ran into just next to the lodge- my lifer Godson’s Montane Pit-Viper!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

Visit The New Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe when Birding Costa Rica

Cinchona is known in Costa Rica as the town that was destroyed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake on January 9th, 2009. Most structures in that quaint town and the surrounding area collapsed, landslides wiped out large sections of route 126, and more than 30 people lost their lives. Birders were especially familiar with the area around Cinchona because of several birding sites situated along route 126. Virgen del Socorro was one of the most famous sites as it was an excellent area for middle elevation birds of the Caribbean Slope and the most reliable place in Costa Rica for seeing Lanceolated Monklet.

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Virgen del Socorro before the earthquake.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens were another site that was frequented by birders and many tourists, but the crown jewel for birding were two cafes with serious hummingbird action and fruit feeders that attracted both species of barbets, tanagers, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, and others. The abundance of birds, friendly owners, and lack of an entrance fee made those cafes a welcome, requisite stop when taking this scenic route to the Sarapiqui area.

All of these places were unfortunately very close to the epicenter of the quake and were severely damaged or seemed to have just disappeared. The road also vanished in places (it ran along the fault line that caused the quake) and it looked as if those classic birding sites were gone for good. More than two years later, I am happy to report that this is not the case. The Waterfall Gardens were back up and running a matter of months after the earthquake, and major improvements have been made to route 126. On a trip to the area last weekend, we were surprised to see how much work had been done on the road. Although it still lacks pavement, it has been widened and graded for at least half of its length and it looked like road crews were fixing up the other half as well. Although the upper section wasn’t officially open, many cars (including two wheel drive vehicles) and public buses are using it.

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Wide, graded road.

Habitat isn’t as good as it used to be along the lower parts of the road but there are some promising areas on the upper section that produced birds such as Dark Pewee, Tufted Flycatcher, a flyby Chiriqui Quail-Dove (!), Barred Becard, Red-faced Spinetail, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and other expected middle elevation species during visits in February. You can also visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens to watch an abundance of hummingbirds and see their “zoo” of rescued animals but to be honest, the $35 per person entrance is too steep of a price to pay for birding in my opinion, and especially so because you can see the same species at other sites in the area.

One of these is the new Hummingbird Cafe. It appears to be located on or near the same spot as the former and might be run by the same people. It is much smaller and a shadow of its former birding glory but it’s still worth a stop. On a visit last weekend, the following hummingbird species came to their three feeders: Violet Sabrewing, Green Violetear, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. Most of these were single birds and there wasn’t a huge amount of action but I still got some ok shots and other species probably show up from time to time.

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Green Thorntail

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Green Violetear

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Green-crowned Brilliant (female)

We also had a White-crowned Parrot that perched on a snag and showed off its colors.

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Virgen del Socorro was visible down below and a road could be discerned that descended into the gorge but as far as we could tell, it was only accessible from the other side of the river. Despite being very familiar with the entrance road to Virgen del Socorro, I failed to find it. I still hope it’s there but strongly suspect that it was more or less destroyed. Perhaps the forested gorge at Virgen del Socorro can still be visited from the village of the same name on the other side of the river? I fear that much habitat was destroyed by earthquake spawned landslides and floods but it would be nice to see if the monklet is still around as well as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them there in the past and they were also seen on rare occasions).

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Some Images of a Great Tinamou at Carara National Park

I am pretty sure that Carara National Park is one of the easiest places to see Great Tinamous anywhere in its range. That’s quite a statement considering that they carefully make their way through the understory of rainforests from southern Mexico way on down into the green depths of the Amazon. While it is true that such an ample range means that there are quite a few places where you could run into this pigskin shaped bird, it’s just not that easy to see in most places. Its actual or perceived scarcity is a side affect of being a sizeable, chunky, tasty looking ground bird.  Locals seem to hunt them wherever they can and before you know it,  they get extirpated or just too shy to see (the early 80s crazy haired group known as Kajagoogoo should do a remake of their one hit wonder , “Too shy” and dedicate it to over-hunted Great Tinamous although most crakes would make better candidates).

Costa Rica is no stranger to the unfortunate over hunting of Great Tinamous so don’t be surprised if you don’t hear or see them in unprotected areas even if the forest does look great. The Osa Peninsula comes to mind in this respect. They are fairly common in Corcovado National Park but you would be very lucky to hear a whisper of this hunted bird in forest near villages. Fortunately, when birding Costa Rica, you have got an excellent chance of seeing a Great Tinamou or two at Carara National Park. They are just as easy at La Selva but since access to the forest is easier at Carara, this factor also makes Great Tinamous that much easier to see at Carara. I see one or two on most guiding trips to the park and insist that if you spend an entire day on the forest trails that leave from the HQ, you have got a very good chance of seeing this strange bird up close and personal.

They are so tame at Carara that seeing Great Tinamou in those beautiful rainforests can be a surreal experience (especially so because they look so weird). My sightings usually go like this:  As I carefully walk along the trail, eyes and ears open to the slightest movement and hint of a shuffle in the leaves, no matter how much I scan the understory, a tinamou suddenly appears just off to the side of the trail. Just standing there unconcerned with my presence like a subject in a living museum, it takes a step or two, maybe pecks at the ground and then stands some more.

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The last time I was at Carara, I had the best views I have ever had of Great Tinamou. These sightings beat out my perfect views of a singing bird at Palenque, Mexico, any number of flushed Great Tinamous in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, and any other nice, close looks at them from past visits to Carara or La Selva. These were the best because for at least 15 minutes, three birds let us watch them sit in the leaf litter

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display

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moon us,

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and attempt to hide behind a sapling in shame.

Seeing Great Tinamou just doesn’t get any better than that!