The easiest place to experience quality rainforest birding when staying in the San Jose area is El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. Or, maybe I should say the quickest, most accessible place because the birding there is never actually easy. Instead, it’s a mysterious challenge that always comes with a temptation of birding gold. But, even if you are just getting started with birds, it’s still worth a visit, especially if you have a free day around San Jose.

A lot of people ask me about the birding in San Jose and my reply is always the same. I tell them that birding in the city isn’t really worth the effort, especially when you can do an easy day trip for foothill species at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez, or highland birds up in the Poas area. Both areas are a close hour’s drive, and always offer quality birding. Compare that to looking for common species in public parks or gardens while worrying about someone trying to steal your binoculars and there’s really no comparison. Maybe if you want to safely look for the endemic ground-sparrow and hang with common birds while staying at places like the Bougainvillea, Xandari, or Zamora Estates, but, in general, if you want to see more, then you need to head over to the mountains. In the case of the foothill sites, that would actually be up and over the mountains.

I did that for a recent day of guiding, and I hope this short report gives an idea of what you might run into over that way. As might these eBird checklists:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965280

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965322

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965263

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965222

If you haven’t previously talked with the guards at Quebrada Gonzalez about leaving the gate open before eight (the usual opening time), go past the ranger station for a couple kilometers and watch for the entrance to El Tapir on the right. Don’t expect a sign but know that it’s the first entrance for a car on the right. If the gate is closed, open it and head on in. Hopefully, the Snowcaps will be active along with lots of other hummingbirds. They were when we were there, including 5 or 6 Snowcaps of all ages and genders, and several other species including Brown Violetear.

brown violetear

Brown Violetear.

Not a whole lot else was going on and the surrounding tree tops were nearly absent of birds, but that can change from one day to the next with various species of raptors showing up, toucans and parrots perching in view, and even Great Green Macaw making an appearance. That large, endangered parrot did indeed show for us even if it was a quick flyby. That happened while we were trying to get good looks at Russet Antshrike, Spotted Antbird, and Slate-colored Grosbeak, all of which were singing (and hiding) at the same time. The antbird didn’t play ball very well, but the other two eventually showed. We also got onto some of our first tanagers as they moved through in a quick flock with several Black-faced grosbeaks.

Deeper into the forest, my hopes and excitement kicked up a notch upon hearing Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds but eventually went back down to birding standby as those ant followers moved off. They never showed and just kept going so I assume they were wandering in search of Army Ants. I played calls of mega R.V. G. Cuckoo and the gnatpitta anyways but got nothing in response. On we went and saw that recent heavy rains had dropped too many branches to go much further. Unfortunately, it was the same situation on the trail down to the river, so we couldn’t explore much of that part of the forest, an area where I suspected that we had more of a chance at Lattice-tailed Trogon or even umbrellabird. However, we still saw found one understory insectivore flock with hoped for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we looked some more before heading over to Quebrada Gonzalez for the rest of the day. Sunny weather kept things pretty quiet but we still managed a few mixed flocks with target White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several other tanagers, a few more Streak-crowned Antvireos, Pale-vented Thrush, and some other birds. No ground birds seen, nor even singing Nightingale Wrens nor Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (usually a given on those trails). But, we did see a King Vulture in flight, heard the Caribbean slope subspecies of Streak-chested Antpitta, saw Striped Woodhaunter, and eventual nice looks at Speckled and Emerald Tanagers.

emerald tanager

A good site for the easy on the eyes Emerald Tanager,

speckled tanager

and the Speckled Tanager.

The only break we took was for lunch just down the road at Chicharronera Patona. It’s small and there’s not a lot on the menu but the food is home-cooked, plentiful, fair-priced, and the owners like birds. It also offers a look into some tall trees and a hillside of forest. You never know what might show at that site. When we were there, we had close looks at Black-cheeked and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, Band-backed Wren, and some other species. The spot also features some awful road noise but since the owner once saw either Crested or Harpy Eagle perched on that hillside, yeah, it’s worth a stop!

At the end of the day, we had a fairly modest list but we still got a fair percentage of the targets, including several species tough to see elsewhere. For someone with a free day or morning, it’s always a good bet.