Historically, Costa Rica was almost entirely covered in forest. If you thought the country was birdy now, try and imagine it being ten times as birdy just a hundred or two hundred years ago. The same can easily be said of North America and Europe (although we may need to go back further in time). Back in those old growth days, second growth must have been rather scarce compared to the abundance of edge habitats that paint so much of the modern Costa Rican landscape. The Central Valley in particular has been severely modified. The plantalicious organic soils and moderate temperatures made (and still make) this part of the country an appealing place to live and like other intermontane valleys in Latin America, its popularity has sort of been its natural downfall.

I of course mean that the original wetlands, associated shrublands, and moist forest ecosystems were mostly eradicated to make room for housing and agriculture. Remnants and replacements exist although nowadays, even coffee farms are all too often converted to tree-less subdivisions. While the biodiversity that occurs in a coffee farm can’t compare to the wild and crazy number of insects, animals, and plants that make up a tropical moist forest ecosystem, quite a few things still reside in the coffee/hedgerow/forested riparian zone/brushy field landscapes of the Central Valley. There would be a lot more if the coffee farms were shaded but sadly, the majority are still sun grown (hopefully that will change as studies continue to demonstrate the benefits of shade coffee).

A Western Wood Pewee seen in shade coffee in Santa Barbara de Heredia.

Looking into the canopy of a riparian zone.

Even though Rufous-capped Warblers and a few other birds might be calling from a hot and sunny bunch of coffee, those same species and much more will be haunting shade coffee, riparian zones, and second growth so it’s best to put the focus on more natural (and thus more complex) areas. Those second growth thickets in particular can be surprisingly birdy and are worth a stop or two. Since they are under-birded, I bet more than a few rarities are hiding out in those areas of dense highland growth. Oh, these wouldn’t be rarities along the lines of spectacular tropical bird species or big old magnificent raptors so if you hoping for those, stick to Corcovado, Hitoy Cerere, or the forests up around Laguna del Lagarto. The birds that might show up in the thickets are duller, browner birds that naturally avoid the spotlight. White-throated Flycatcher, Lesser Elaenia, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and dare I say Pheasant Cuckoo come to mind. No, I have not seen that crazy shy cuckoo but a friend of mine has and he had his lucky day in a generic brushy field near Alajuela. As for the first three, I have seen all of them on more than one occasion in a highland thicket, two of which I even happened to see today during a very short bit of birding near the Bosque del Nino above Grecia.

The plumage of the Lesser Elaenia doesn't exactly shout for attention but is a good bird to see in Costa Rica (and is very likely not the same species as Lesser Elaenias south of the Amazon).

The original plan involved spending more time than just an hour up that way but slow going traffic and winding roads chomped at least an hour off of the planned for birding time. Although that translated to fewer birds, it also taught me that a trip to the Bosque del Nino and surroundings is better done as a full day trip and not as some quick jaunt because most of that jaunt will be spent on the road. Anyways, the reason I went up there was not actually to check out the thickets along the way, but to spish up a storm in the groves of evergreens. You see, I have this recurring wish of finding uncommon migrants and maybe even something new for the country in non-native groves of Guatemalan Cypress and Caribbean Pine. I figure that if a Hammond’s Flycatcher, Hermit Warbler, or some other great avian find decides to go on a crazy vacation to Costa Rica, they are probably going to end up in some stand of evergreens. That wish hasn’t panned out yet but I still don’t feel as if I have tested it enough. Today, I tested it out a bit with few results (and no rarities) but actually ended up seeing most of my birds in the thick second growth along the road to the reserve.

There were a bunch of common species such as Rufous-collared Sparrow, a few Blue-gray Tanagers, Yellow-faced Grassquits, TKs, Wilson’s Warblers, and the requisite Plain Wrens along with less common species like Lesser Elaenia and three or four MacGillivray’s Warblers.

One of very many Wilson's Warblers in Costa Rica.

MacGillivray's Warbler doing the usual hiding thing.

MacGillivray's Warbler doing the skulker two step.

The bird finally shows its eye crescent-decorated head.

Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes and White-naped Brush Finches also called but failed to show themselves. Since I only checked a couple of roadside thickets, I can’t help but wonder what else is out there along other roads, way off in fields that can’t be accessed, and the many parts of the Central Valley that never see a birder. That sizeable measure of the unknown leaves plenty of room for possibilities and makes birding in Costa Rica that much more exciting even when I bird not so glamorous habitats like second growth and brushy fields. I hope to head back up that way and find that Hammond’s Fly but next time, I’m leaving earlier in the day and staying longer!