Mountains are one of the main reasons why so many bird species live in Costa Rica. They act as barriers that promote speciation, catch moisture that creates cloud forest and other tropical forest habitats, and make it possible for distinct ecosystems to evolve at different elevations. But, on the downside, the steep slopes, ravines, and other forms of broken terrain don’t exactly facilitate access. Considering that there are people who would rather cut down the forest to make room for cows, that’s a good thing. But, not so good for birders who wouldn’t mind some easy-going searching for middle elevation species.
But, thanks to a certain few roads, we don’t need to torture ourselves by slip sliding up and down muddy slopes to catch a glimpse of a spinetail or two. In Costa Rica, we can head on over to Virgen del Socorro to hang out with Tufted Flycatchers and be entertained by the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets (if we really feel like calling that entertainment). Despite losing some forest during the 2009 earthquake, Virgen del Socorro is up and running for birding. Here are some tips for visiting this classic site:
Check out the “new” road!: This would be the road that accesses the canyon and although it’s not really new, the conditions are so much better, it’s pretty much as good as new. Or, it’s at least the best it will probably ever be. Instead of bouncing along roads and ruts, thanks to some recent grading, it’s a smooth ride down to the bridge and up to the entrance to the hydro plant on the other side of the river. Who knows how long it will last but you can probably enjoy this two wheel drive trip for the next few months.
Sunny days aren’t the best of days but they are good for raptors: Pretty much that. If you can get there before 8, it’s all good. After then, expect some really slow birding interspersed with raptor thermals. Commonly seen raptors at this site are Bat Falcon, White Hawk (maybe the most reliable, easily accessible spot in the country), Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Keep watching and you might also get lucky with Ornate Hawk-Eagle. In the past, Great Black Hawk, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, and even Solitary Eagle were regular at this site, maybe they could show up again?
One of the White Hawks from this site.
Time is better spent at the bridge and the other side: The habitat is better down by the river, and across the bridge. Birds can also be seen on the way to the bridge but where there is more forest, there tend to be more birds and more species. Watching from the bridge might also turn up an American Dipper and other river species (although Sunbittern seems to be oddly absent).
Don’t worry, no one uses the old bridge any more.
Keep watching for mixed flocks: As if we wouldn’t be doing this anyways? What I mean by this is to keep looking and waiting for multi-species action, and then trying to stay with those birds as long as you can. This is where most of the birds will be including chances at various foothill and middle elevation species, and uncommon and rare stuff like Brown-billed Scythebill, tyrannulets, Blue and gold Tanager, vagrant wood-warblers for us local birders, and who knows what else?
Red-headed Barbet can show up. You can also watch for it at the Colibri Cafe.
Hummingbirds: It depends on what’s in flower but know that this is a good site for “le Black-crested Coquette”, Brown Violetear, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Mountain-gem, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy among others.
Female White-bellied Mountain-Gem
When to visit: Any time of the year is good. This is a great place to bird as a day trip when staying in the Sarapiqui area (takes about 40 minutes to drive there). It also works well when staying in the Varablanca/Poas area, and can be done as a day trip from the San Jose area but it will take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to get there. If taking the bus, the San Jose-Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui-Varablanca bus route can drop you at the entrance road.
It’s also a good site for Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Do the San Miguel loop: This means taking the road towards San Miguel on the way back. This is also good for birding and can yield more foothill species.
How to get there: The entrance road into the canyon is not signed. It is located off of route 126 (the road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens) on the east side of the road, just south of the largest river on this road, and doesn’t look like much. There is a also white roadside cross just above the entrance road. This is also between San Miguel and Cinchona. Another way to find it is by checking out the map for the Virgen del Socorro hotspot in eBird- in general, this is an excellent way to find various birding sites in Costa Rica and most countries.
Hope you see some good stuff!