October is part of the official rainy season in Costa Rica. Each year, low pressure systems get together to stew up a massive dumping of water upon Costa Rica and other parts of Central America. The results often include landslides, flooding (albeit typically in floodplains), and lower temperatures. On a side note, I should add that much of the Caribbean slope is spared these 72 hour or more deluges from the sky. The sun still reigns during the morning hours over on the other side of the mountains and that’s where you should go when birding Costa Rica in October.
I was recently made aware of this wise piece of advice over the past weekend. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and test preparation fame came down for a short visit and I was happy to show him around. During the trip planning stage, I had mentioned that rain might be an issue but also that the near future was looking bright and so we didn’t expect too many weather-related problems. After all, the sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms of September and the first week of October were downright pleasant and predictable. It looked as if Mike could come on down, we could sweep up on regional endemics, and generally have a good, solid dose of non-stop, exciting birding. When you are optimistic, these sort of things run through your mind because you want them to come true. The only hitch is that they don’t necessarily reflect how things are going to turn out.
This past weekend, the rains were triumphant in the imaginary battle between optimism and weather conditions. The more I wished for sun, the harder it rained but in keeping with the determined, undaunted nature of the Zen-birding tradition (I don’t know what that really means but it sure sounds good), we failed to surrender arms! Ha! Even after Mike’s plane was delayed for more than 800 minutes (according to flightstatus.com), we surged on down to Carara shortly after his arrival. When we reached the second tool booth, we found out that the rains had thrown a landslide into our path to keep us from reaching Carara. No problem! We turned straight around and wove our way through the pot-holed maze of Central Valley streets to head up into the mountains. About 10 minutes past Alajuela, we were stopped by another road closure, this one related to the repair of downed power lines. No problem! The car was stopped and there was green space so we started birding. Spishing and pygmy-owl toots called a few species out of the woodwork and Mike got his second regional endemic in the form of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (Crimson-fronted Parakeet was the first).
Not the Hoffmann’s we saw but I can assure that it looked just like this one.
No new birds popped up so we consulted the trusty GPS navigator and took another route towards Poas Volcano. It didn’t take long, though, for us to be confronted with a true, honest to goodness landslide.
This is why motorbikes are popular in rural areas of Costa Rica.
Mist saturated the entire area (and hid a calling Flame-colored Tanager) so we took another route up the volcano. This time, we were successful in reaching a place where we could watch birds without getting soaked. Known as the “El Volcan” restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a tasty, home-cooked lunch accompanied by a nice selection of cloud forest hummingbirds. Despite the wet weather, we quickly tallied 7 species of hummingbirds.
These included several Purple-throated Mountain-gems,
a few Volcano Hummingbirds,
and Violet Sabrewings.
Slaty Flowerpiercers also moved through the restaurant garden on one of their constant nectar filching missions, and forest on the other side of the street hosted Yellow-thighed Finches, Wilson’s Warblers, Red-faced Spinetail, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and other birds adapted to cool, misty, 2,000 meter climes. The restaurant was nice and dry but how could we stay when there were other birds to be seen higher up the road? We drove uphill and made occasional stops to search for birds. The constant, saturating mist and rain attempted to drown out my pygmy-owl imitation but I still managed to attract that hefty-billed beauty known as a Black-thighed Grosbeak. Golden-browed Chlorophonias also softly called from the canopy but refused to reveal themselves. As much as I attempted to ignore the rain while looking at Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Large-footed Finch, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, I couldn’t help but admit that the experience was akin to watching birds while taking a cold shower. A quetzal might have given us enough internal birding power to stave off any and all discomfort but since none showed up, we headed back downhill and made our way to the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.
In conclusion, if you must go birding in Costa Rica during October, stick to the Caribbean slope because it’s drier there at this time of year. If circumstances or location make it impossible to avoid the rain, you can always go to the El Volcan Restaurant and watch the hummingbird action. Other highland species will also show up without being accompanied by a supposedly invigorating, warmth-sapping natural cold shower. You could also immerse yourself into sudoku but that will keep you from seeing birds so leave those numeric puzzles at home or on the plane and just keep looking for birds!
The El Volcan restaurant is situated past Poasito, on the road up to Poas Volcano. Look for it on the left or west side of the road. It looks like this: