Varablanca, Costa Rica is a village situated on a mountain pass between two volcanoes; Poas and Barva. Head up into the patchy high elevation forests of those mountains and you have a fair chance of connecting with most of Costa Rica’s signature highland species. Back down at the pass, though, much of the area has been converted into pasture. Meadowlarks and Rufous-collared Sparrows abound but they can’t compare to cloud forest species such as Lovely Cotingas, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and Black-breasted Wood-Quail. The chlorophonia and wood quail still occur in the area but it’s hard to access their forest haunts. As for the cotinga, they have been recorded around Varablanca in the past but haven’t been seen in that area for several years (as far as I know). I suspect that those shiny turquoise and purple birds still occur in small numbers but once again, the difficulty in accessing contiguous forest presents a volcano-sized challenge in finding them.
From Varablanca, the main road descends to Cinchona of earthquake and hummingbird fame. It eventually reaches the Caribbean lowlands and continues on to the Sarapiqui area. Even with a fair bit of deforestation, various protected sites make this general route a veritable bonanza for birds. Since the hefty Cinchona earthquake of 2009, though, accessing good middle elevation forest has been a challenge. A fair percentage of the forest in the nearby canyon was destroyed by landslides and there is little free, accessible habitat along the road. The trails at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens do provide access to forest but I just feel funny about paying $30 to simply walk around and watch birds.
Fortunately, there is another road that you can take and the birding looks to be very promising indeed. In fact, after a trip along said road on Saturday, I don’t exaggerate in naming it the best, unknown birding area in Costa Rica. I haven’t heard of anyone birding this road yet and would never have visited the place if Steve Semanchuk hadn’t mentioned it as an access road to Virgen del Socorro on Bird Forum. Thanks to Steve, Susan Blank and I did a recon trip on Saturday and it turned out to be much better than I had hoped. The route in question is the San Rafael de Varablanca road. It’s signed as such and is the only clearly visible route that leaves from the Varablanca- Cinchona- San Miguel road. The only downside to this road is that it requires 4-wheel drive. It’s actually not that bad, just that there are a couple parts where a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have a bit of trouble. On a side note, the near absence of traffic, beautiful scenery, and avian action make it perfect for mountain biking.
This “new” birding road starts maybe 2-3 ks (?) after Varablanca (where the road to Poas intersects with the road to Cinchona) and heads off to the east. It goes steeply down to a river and then up and over partly forested hills until going right along the western edge of Braulio Carillo National Park (!). It eventually heads down through a fair-sized area of quality middle elevation forest before reaching deforested lands once again near Virgen del Socorro. At that point, you could continue on through the old Virgen del Socorro birding site before meeting up again with the main road that connects San Miguel and Cinchona. On Saturday, we did just that and even spent a couple hours in the Caribbean lowlands.
What some of this birding road looks like.
On the upper part of the road, we passed near patches and riparian zones with cloud forest that held Prong-billed Barbets, Ruddy Treerunners, Ochraceous Wrens, Yellow-thighed Finch, Collared Trogon, and many other species typical of this habitat and elevation (probably 1,200- 1,500 meters). Although we didn’t record any quetzals, there are definitely in the area along with lots of other uncommon species. Torrent Tyrannulets were common along the streams and we caught a glimpse of a Green-fronted Lancebill.
Tufted Flycatcher was another very common species.
When the road goes along the edge of the national park, much of the vegetation appeared to be growing back but it was still good for birds. We had a nice mixed flock in that area with Yellow-thighed Finch, White-naped Brush-Finch, Golden-winged Warbler, and several other species. We also had Collared Trogon there along with Coppery-headed Emeralds and Dark Pewee.
Lower still, we got more excited when we began to drive through beautiful middle elevation forest. I suspect that the elevation was around 1,000 meters and even though it was mid-morning, the birding was almost non-stop. Red-headed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, and Slate-colored Grosbeak were heard while a variety of tanagers, White-ruffed Manakin, and White-crowned Manakin were seen. Other highlights were Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner (kind of rare in Costa Rica).
The vistas of the forested canyon looked ideal for finding some quality raptor such as a Solitary Eagle or Barred Hawk but we saw very few soaring birds of prey. Perched raptors were pretty good though with Broad-winged Hawk, White Hawk, and a very cooperative Bat Falcon.
I love this bird because it didn’t fly away when we stopped the car.
Down at the old Virgen del Socorro site, things were pretty quiet (expected on a sunny 11 am). The forest still looked pretty good on the eastern side of the road but most of the forest at the former monklet site and along the western side of the road was secondary in nature (wiped out by the earthquake). Nevertheless, it probably still holds some surprises and it wouldn’t be out of the question for monklets to still live in the area. Although no diminutive puffbirds answered my monklet imitations (they have done so in Ecuador), we saw a young Barred Forest-Falcon and Immaculate Antbird at a roadside antswarm.
One of the best things about the road was the sheer quiet of the place. We saw a few people but maybe 2-3 other vehicles total (!). I hope to survey it during breeding season to see if Lovely Cotinga and umbrellabird occur as the area looks ideal for these birds and offers enough canopy vantage points to see them if they are around.
As long as you have a four wheel drive vehicle, this would be a great route to take to Sarapiqui. After seeing some choice middle elevation species in the morning, you could take a left at the Cinchona-San Miguel road and go back uphill for a few kilometers for lunch at the Mirador de Colibries Hummingbird Cafe. This is located on the site of the original Cinchona cafes of birding fame and is still pretty good for hummingbirds and a fair number of species that visit their fruit feeders.
Here is our species list (104 total) from Varablanca to Virgen del Socorro for Saturday, October 8th:
|Black-breasted Wood Quail-h|
|Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant|
|Eastern Wood Pewee|
|Gray-breasted Wood Wren-h|
|Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush-h|
|Black-headed Nightingale Thrush-h|
|Black and white Warbler|
|Common Bush Tanager|
|Blue and gold Tanager|
|Black and yellow Tanager|