Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Starting 2015 with Costa Rican Pygmy Owls and Quetzals

A week ago, a large percentage of us humans celebrated the start of another new year with best wishes and the usual countdown. It’s hard for me to take it seriously because calendars are totally subjective but it’s always a nice excuse for a party as well as the spreading of good vibes. For birders, that major calendar change also represents a chance to start counting birds once again to see how many you can identify over the next twelve months. It also acts as a time to review the birds you would like to see and tell yourself, that yes, this year, I am going to see that damn Black Rail, a Boreal Owl, or some other evasive avian creature.

This one is royalty when it comes to being evasive.

As for myself, I haven’t made any plans or statements for 2015. Sure, I would like to see a Spotted Rail but I’m going to be Zen about the whole thing and try for new birds when I can (not too many for me to try for in Costa Rica and the Masked Duck can of course va fa in ….). I will also keep track of the birds I see but think I will do so with eBird. I can’t even recall what my first bird of the year was but no matter because I saw a bunch of good ones between the 2nd and the 4th. During those dates, I was guiding/birding on Cerro de la Muerte and stayed at Myriam’s Cabins.

One of the cabins

Although the diversity was naturally low, quality was high with most species being highland endemics.

We saw several Flame-throated Warblers.
Quite a few Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers were also around.
Sooty Thrushes were common.

Up on the paramo, after a bit of searching, we eventually connected with the junco, wren, and finch (Peg-billed).

Volcano Junco!

Over at Georgina, searching the primary forests failed to find the jay but we did get the quetzal in the afternoon. Luckily, good old serpent tail sang a couple of times and a female flew in. After bad looks, a male zipped through the canopy and perched for walk away views. Yee haw!

The colors really stood out from the surrounding woods.

Not long after the quetzal, I got lucky with a glimpse of a pygmy-owl flying overhead. Unfortunately, branches obscured everything but its tick-tocking tail and then it was gone. Frustration began to set in until the bird gave us a break, started calling, and eventually came close. After hiding out in the bamboo, one more bit of whistles brought it right in front of our faces.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl winking at us.

More walk away views ensued after seeing this tough endemic surrounded by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl from the side.

Those were the two stars of the show but we also got most other species including Buff-fronted Quail-Dove on a likely nest at Myriam’s, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Spotted Wood-Quail, and super close looks at several other cool birds.

Including this Dusky Nightjar hanging out in front of the Dantica parking lot.

Despite a good deal of focused searching, we dipped on the pewee, jay, and saw-whet but found out that yes, the saw-whet is seen regularly around Myriam’s (!), and that Myriam’s also has a trail through excellent primary forest. On a disturbing note, the forest understory looks dry and rather open, and the forest looked pretty dry overall. This is not good for rainforest ecosystems adapted to getting several meters of rain per year.

Back on the good news front, Myriam’s also had nice action at the feeders, good food, and great, friendly service. Next birding stop for me might be Monteverde or maybe El Tapir. I’m not fretting though, because it’s always going to be birdy!

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Bird Photos from a Quick Trip to the Barva Highlands

Barva Volcano is the top of Braulio Carrillo National Park and the nearest, quality highland habitat to my place of residence. I can see the ruffled jade top of the mountain from the window and the lighter green pastures that creep up the slopes. There is a narrow road that reaches 2,200 meters before turning into a horribly rough and rocky track. That roughness goes 3 kilometers more to the gate of the national park but I rarely use it because I don’t bird from the back of a four wheeler. Nor do I have a birding mule. Cardio workout aside, I feel don’t feel like hiking uphill from that point either. Instead, I stick to birding along the side of the road, especially in riparian zones near the highland settlements of Sacramento and Porrosati.

Scenery on the road to Barva. No migrants there.
Rufous-capped Warbler- not a migrant but always nice to see. A common species in coffee and habitats on much of the road.

The other day, I ended up doing a bit of birding along that road to Barva Volcano. I hoped to find migrants and maybe take a few pictures of whatever birds I found. While I did come across a few warblers and one Red-eyed Vireo, there were very few migrants around. Either they haven’t come through in numbers, or their numbers are lower than they should be. Given the long northern breeding season, I suspect it’s a case of late migration. At least that’s my hope. Of the migrants I saw, Black and White Warblers were the most common.

Black and white Warbler using whatever habitat it finds.

On an interesting note, I heard more than one Black and white give sort of weak versions of their squeeky wheel song. It makes me wonder. Do some of these birds sing to delineate territories on their wintering grounds?

At one birdy riparian zone, I had great looks at Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. It was nice to watch a pair of this common cloud forest singer forage in the open because they can be tough to see.

Face to face with a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.

Spotted Barbtail also gave its sharp call note ( a bit like that of a leaftosser) but didn’t really cooperate for the camera.

This was the best I could do for the Spotted Barbtail.

A few Flame-throated Warblers were also in the house. Always nice to watch this smart-looking regional endemic.

Flame-throated Warbler.

As per usual, there were a few Mountain Elaenias around. Get to know this bird if you are coming to Costa Rica for birding because it’s really common in semi-open, highland habitats.

Mountain Elaenia- yep, one of those not so obvious flycatchers.

A pair of Brown-capped Vireos were also present. They sound a lot like a Warbling Vireo but look better.

Brown-capped Vireo

Of course, Common Bush Tanagers were also around. Oh, excuse me, “Common Chlorospinguses”.

Common Bush Tanager

Nary a Blue Seedeater replied to playback (I have had them there a couple of times in the past) but it was still nice to see some common highland species just 20 minutes by car from the house. This weekend, I hope to be in for some exciting birding in the Arenal area. To add to the excitement, the other day, a mega Crested Eagle was seen and photographed by the main birding guide at SkyTrek. I will be there for a day so hopefully, we will get lucky! If not, we will still have a chance at lots of other uncommon birds.

Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Introduction

Some Bird Images from Miriam’s Cafe, San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica

Any birder who has been to Costa Rica knows what “San Gerardo de Dota” means. This montane location translates to “Resplendent Quetzal” and/or “Savegre Lodge” for most birders but for me, it also means “Miriam’s Cafe”. The birding is definitely great in this Talamancan Valley, especially at Savegre, but there are other options for accommodations. The budget birder will enjoy a stay at Miriam’s Quetzals (the teasing official name) and not just because a clean, cozy cabin goes for around $40 bucks a night. There really is a Miriam and this super nice senora is also super accommodating and makes delicious, local food. I’m not kidding. I have been to a bunch of small hotels and the like in Costa Rica and elsewhere and Miriam is at the upper levels of niceness. She also bakes/grills the best cornbread I have had in Costa Rica and the birds think so too!

I think this juvenile Flame-colored Tanager is eating cornbread.

Miriam has a feeder just out back and it gets some really cool birds. You can watch this feeder while eating, and when I was there, she also left Enya’s Watermark playing with every meal. Since I dig the ethereal, elfie sounds of Enya, that was cool with me.

Feeder and ghetto scope accompanied by Enya.
The feeder was sort of dominated by Acorn Woodpeckers and Flame-colored Tanagers.
A female Flame-colored Tanager looks content after munching on cornbread. That's just how I felt.
This Yellowhammerish looking creature is a young Flame-colored Tanager.
Yellow-thighed Finches also showed up.
This Yellow-thighed Finch was caught with its mouth full.
Even Large-footed Finches hopped up onto the feeder.
What one of the cabins looks like.

Lots of other birds show up in the area too, including Yellow-bellied Siskins, Yellow-winged Vireos, quetzals from October to January, and even Unspotted Saw-whet Owl on one of their trails (seriously!).

Black-capped Flycatcher is also common.
Sooty Thrush is common too.

I look forward to my next visit to Miriam’s. Maybe next time, I will get pictures of the wood-partridge, the spotless little owl, and other cool mountain birds.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Hanging Out with Hummingbirds from Poas to Sarapiqui

Yesterday, I guided a couple on the Poas-Cinchona-Nature Pavilion route. This always makes for a fun, easy-going tour because it puts the focus on feeders and photography with such extra possibilities as mixed flocks, and target birds like Black Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet, toucans, and high elevation endemics. Although the unusual hot, dry weather on the Caribbean slope has put a damper on bird activity (and can’t be doing anything good for birds, plants, insects, or anything other life forms adapted to rain on a daily basis), we still connected with the guan, quetzal, barbet, and an overall nice variety of birds.

A Prong-billed Barbet from another day at Cinchona. We saw one at the Volcan Restaurant.

Hummingbird feeder activity was especially good and was the main focus on our attention. At our first main stop, the Cinchona Cafe, we were treated to near constant hummingbird activity. One of the most common species was the big, bold, and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

Male Violet Sabrewing.

At least 6 males were present and one female eventually showed as well.

The sabrewing was outnumbered, however, by Green-crowned Brilliants. At times, one feeder would play host to 6 or 7 brilliants, including juvenile males.

A male Green-crowned Brilliant .
A frontal view of a male brilliant.

The next most common hummingbird species was the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald, a white-tailed, middle elevation sprite with a slightly decurved bill.

A close, front view of a female Coppery-headed Emerald.

Green Hermits were also visiting the feeders more than they usually do (I wonder if the Heliconias they feed on are suffering from lack of rain), a few White-bellied Mountain Gems also made an appearance, and a couple of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were around.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

One Green Violetear was present but fed on flowering bushes instead of sugar water at the feeders. Rounding out the Cinchona hummingbird show were a few male and female Green Thorntails. Sometimes, the thorntails and other hummingbirds would perch within arm’s length.

A male Green Thorntail at Cinchona.

After enjoying a delicious country breakfast accompanied by hummingbirds, we moved on down slope to the Nature Pavilion. Being situated in the Caribbean lowlands, this site has a totally different set of hummingbirds (except for the near ubiquitous Rufous-tailed). White-necked Jacobin is the regular species at this site although hermits can also zip by, woodnymphs usually show up (although not yesterday), and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer makes an appearance or two (we did have this one).

A male White-necked Jacobin.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- note the red feet!

In addition to hummingbirds, we also did alright with other bird species even during the heat of the mid-morning. Two pairs of Rufous Motmots showed well down by the river along with Bay Wren, Collared Aracari, and a brief Keel-billed Toucan. A Black-mandibled also called but wouldn’t reveal itself.

A female Gartered Trogon from the Nature Pavilion.
Vivid Red-legged Honeycreepers were feeding in a flowering tree when not feeding on fruit.
A Striped Basilisk also showed well at the Nature Pavilion.

When the clock got close to noon, we headed back upslope, and drove on up to the Volcan Restaurant. This hotspot is situated at a much cooler 2,000 meters and shows it with birds like Magnificent Hummingbird, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem.

Magnificent Hummingbird.

We also enjoyed the antics of several Volcano Hummingbirds (all females but didn’t pick out any Scintillants), Green Violetear, a couple more Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, one female Magenta-throated Woodstar, and a female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

A Volcano Hummingbird at the feeder.
A female Magenta-throated Woodstar.
A female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

The forested riparian zone at the restaurant also dished out some non hummingbird birdies, including Prong-billed Barbet, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, and a few other species, one of which was a female quetzal! A small Lauraceous tree next to the stream had some fruits and the female was actively feeding on them.

After getting our fill of a good lunch, lots of hummingbirds, and the birds in the riparian zone, we checked out the higher elevation forests near the entrance to the national park. They had already seen lots of Fiery-throated Hummingbirds at Paraiso de Quetzales but that didn’t stop us from looking at a few that were feeding on flowering bromeliads. Other birds included a quick Black Guan, Sooty, Mountain, and Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, some very nice looks at several Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Black and yellow Silky Fkycatcher, and both Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.

A fun day overall, it makes me want to go back up there and just hike off into the highland forests on Poas.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

A Brief Trip Report from Guiding in the Poas Area, November Third

Sort of continued from A Brief Trip Report from Guiding El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez One Day and the Poas Area the Next..

As it turned out, hitting sites from the Central Valley and the Poas area was a much better idea than birding on Irazu. Sure, we sacrificed sightings of the junco and wren and missed a few other species that we would have probably gotten at Irazu but also saw probably 50 more species than we would have ticked at the larger volcano. The day began once again at the Bougainvillea and after a quick breakfast stop at the 24 hour McDonald’s in Heredia, we drove on through the empty streets to an area near San Joaquin that has coffee bushes, brushy fields, and a good number of birds.

Coffee fields where we had the ground sparrow.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by flyby flocks of Red-billed Pigeons (in the Central Valley, more common than the good old feral Rock Pigeon), flocks of White-winged Doves, a flock or two of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and a nice bunch of other birds.  The best was actual looks at two toughies- Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite, and after a fair bit of waiting and watching, a Prevost’s Ground Sparrow! As with any quail like bird, the bobwhite is typically tough to see while the ground sparrow is just all too uncommon and skulky. Those were our “best” birds but we also saw Rufous-capped Warbler, Grayish Saltator, White-tailed Kite, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and two surprise Orange-fronted Parakeets among other more common species.

A nice look at a Boat-billed Flycatcher.

The dawn drive through small town streets was pretty birdy and we eventually got hoped for looks at Blue-crowned Motmot perched on a roadside wire, a Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, and a surprise Black-headed Saltator (seems this Caribbean slope species has become established in various parts of the Central Valley). Those fine sightings were followed by the drive up the curvy road to Varablanca with a few stops en route to try for various highland species including the likes of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, and other species of the upper Central Valley zone. During one stop, spishing produced a bonanza of migrant warblers including a year bird- Townsend’s Warbler! The hoped for toucanet failed to show but we still had plenty of time to connect with that little green toucan. Happily, we hit a jackpot of birds at our next stop, a riparian zone that featured a fine mixed flock of highland birds. In a matter of minutes, we got both redstarts, Ruddy Treerunner, Red-faced Spinetail, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Yellow-thighed Finch, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds, and others. It’s so nice when the birds show!

A Yellow-thighed Finch hiding its yellow thighs and looking very blackbirdish.

Further on, the other riparian zones were quiet but we were in for a bunch more birds for the day, the next ones being Yellow-winged Vireo, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Gray-breasted Wood Wren behind the parking lot of a small shop in Varablanca. It’s always worth it to keep an eye open for birds at the Varablanca crossroads because I have seen everything from Prong-billed Barbet to Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Emerald Toucanet, and even Yellow-bellied Siskin in that area.

Although I knew that road work was being done on the road that leads to the La Paz waterfall, I still hoped we could hit a few spots on the way down. That didn’t work out due to heavy vehicles parking in the spots where I usually stop so I decided that we should bird a bit along the turn off to San Rafael. This turned out to be a good choice because it yielded our two target regional flycatchers- Golden-bellied and Dark Pewee, finally glimpsed Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, saw Brown-capped Vireo, and saw at least two Emerald Toucanets! We heard but did not see Tufted Flycatcher and got a few other highland species.

After that stop, we drove back uphill and went to the Volcan Restaurant to check the quality riparian habitat and hummingbird feeders before lunch. As usual, the guy who watches the cars there told me about seeing quetzal that morning. Since he is there most of every day, he sees one or two as they move through the riparian corridor and sometimes sees Black Guan as well. It was way more quiet than normal while we were there but the feeders complied with Violet Sabrewing, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and five other species of hummingbirds.

This is a good site to pick up Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

Lunch was delicious as always and eating early gave us more time to look for birds in the higher elevations (and hopefully see them before the afternoon rains). Although it turned out to be the busiest day for traffic I have ever seen on Poas, we still saw most of our targets. The big ones like the guan and quetzal evaded us but I’m not sure if there were that many around because I didn’t see any of the fruits that they usually feed on. However, we did get fine looks at Black-cheeked Warbler, more Collared Redstarts, Yellow-thighed Finches, and Slaty Flowerpiercers, Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, Flame-colored Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Flame-throated Warbler. We also picked up a new hummingbird for the day in the form of several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, glimpsed a Wrenthrush, saw our third nightingale thrush for the day (Black-billed), and finally got our Large-footed Finch.

A distant look at a Flame-throated Warbler.
A closer look at a Sooty-capped Bush Tanager. We had lots of those.

By the time we saw the finch, it started to rain too much to keep watching birds so we began to drive downhill with the hope that we could evade the falling water. As luck would have it, as we drove away from Poas and towards Barva, the rains came to a brief stop and we picked up a few more choice bird species. Scanning the canopy of distant trees from an overlook turned up scoped views of Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher but our best and most unexpected species was a Bicolored Hawk! Although it stayed long enough to scope it, it didn’t stick around long enough to digiscope it, otherwise I would show you its contrasting dark cap and Cooper’s Hawkish shape.

After the hawk, the rains picked up again so we didn’t get in any more birding for the day but by that point, it was 4:30 and we had seen 88 species (4 heard onlys) for a long, satisfying day of birding the Central Valley and Poas area

biodiversity bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

A Couple Hours of Birding on Poas is Always Good

Green space is where the birds are and that’s why I drive 45 minutes up to Poas Volcano. That’s one of the closest places with intact forest habitat and the birding is always good. Between the house and Poas, there are riparian zones that snake through coffee plantations but that habitat is rather inaccessible compared to the highland forests on Poas. This past Tuesday, after dropping off Miranda at pre-K, I decided to do the trip to Poas in search of migrants, photos of various species ,and maybe a recording or two. Most birds are vocalizing much less now compared to the months of February, March, and April but I still managed a recording a the resident Red-tailed Hawk subspecies and will be including that on the next update of our Costa Rica birding app (coming soon and with a bunch of new species and vocalizations).

On the way up to the volcano, I made a few stops at groves of Guatemalan Cypress. Although these introduced species don’t harbor as many birds as native vegetation I always check them in the hope of finding Hermit, Townsend’s, or even Golden-cheeked Warblers and other rare vagrants. Although the fact that these are rare birds indeed is reflected by never finding any of those species in those introduced evergreens, that doesn’t stop me from looking and I bet there are some uber rarities out there somewhere. Just gotta keep checking and pishing.

Speaking of pishing, the bird that invariably shows up in high elevation habitats of Costa Rica is the cheeky Wilson’s Warbler. This blocky headed wood warbler just might be the most common species in the highlands during the winter months. While pishing in one spot on Tuesday, I brought up a veritable parade of around 30 of them along with just one Black and white and one Blackburnian.

Wilsons Warbler- the most common highland bird in Costa Rica from October to March.
A closer look at a Wilson's Warbler.

In addition to looking for migrant warblers, I also saw a bunch of nice resident species including several flocks of Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.

Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers are common high elevation endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.
A Sooty-capped Bush Tanager feeding on fruit.

I also saw some Commons and they do seem to be creeping upward in elevation bit by bit. The bush-tanagers were super busy with feeding on small fruits and were occasionally joined  by Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers and a few other birds (although no Spangle-cheeks- a bird I was hoping for). One of those birds was Golden-browed Chlorophonia. I usually hear several of this gorgeous little thing while birding on Poas but they can be hard to see well. Fortunately, a couple of these technicolor goldfinches were busy feeding on berries in a short bush and stayed still long enough for proper digiscoping.

A male Golden-browed Chlorophonia from the side.
Golden-browed Chlorophonia from the front.
A closer look at the crown and bill of Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

Those same bushes were also flowering and filled with hummingbirds. A conservative estimate was 6 Fiery-throateds, 4 Magnificents, 6 Purple-throated Mountain-gems, and 4 Volcano Hummingbirds. Of course, several Slaty Flowerpiercers were also taking advantage of the nectar bonanza.

Female Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Up near the entrance to the park, a pair of Large-footed Finches hopped right out and foraged along the side of the road. I swear, you just never know when these over-sized ground sparrows are going to come out into the open. When guiding birders up that way, we usually get the Large-footed Finch but it can take a while and they rarely forage on the curb.

Large-footed Finch standing on the curb.
Large-footed Finch doing its foraging thing in the leaf litter.

The entrance to the park can also be good for mixed flocks and Tuesday delivered with a flock that held Buffy Tuftedcheek, Collared Redstart, bush tanagers, and other species.

The Yellow-thighed Finch looks a lot like a blackbird if you don't see the yellow thighs.
A poor shot of a Ruddy Treerunner from that flock.
Flame-throated Warblers were in the flock too.

Oddly enough, although the bamboo in the understory of that area is totally seeding, I haven’t heard a single Peg-billed Finch or other bamboo bird there despite checking several times. Maybe I need to focus on the area a bit more to see if I can rustle up a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove (a rarity I have only seen once ever during a bamboo seeding event on Chirripo in 1994). Only species I did hear in the bamboo was a Wrenthrush. Hopefully, the next post about Poas will report Slaty Finch and other choice bamboo birds!

bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

More Great Birding in Costa Rica on the Poas-Varablanca-Cinchona Route

I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:

After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.

We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.

The Ochraceous Wren- common but sort of skulks in the canopy of mossy high elevation forest.

Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.

The warblerish Yellow-winged Vireo.
The Warblering Vireoish Brown-capped Vireo.

A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

A cute White-bellied Mountain Gem.

About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.

Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.

Watching hummingbirds in the rain at the Volcan Restaurant.

Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).

A male Green-crowned Brilliant at the Volcan Restaurant.

Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!

The Collared Redstart is one of the more beautiful of the highland endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.
A Costa Rican Pygmy Owl on Poas.

We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.

It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.

The weird and wonderful Zeledonia, a strange wood warbler that likes to masquerade as an Asian Tesia species.

Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).

Male Resplendent Quetzal.

The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.

Here is the list for the day:

Seen heard only
Black Vulture White-throated Crake
Turkey Vulture Bare-shanked Screech Owl
White Hawk Immaculate Antbird
Black Guan Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Rock Pigeon Paltry Tyrannulet
White-winged Dove Common Tody-Flycatcher
Crimson-fronted Parakeet Social Flycatcher
White-crowned Parrot Barred Becard
Costa Rican Pygmy Owl Plain Wren
Green Hermit Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Stripe-throated Hermit Rufous-capped Warbler
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird Yellow-faced Grassquit
Violet Sabrewing Sooty-faced Finch
Brown Violetear Black-cowled Oriole
Green Violetear Yellow-bellied Siskin
Green-crowned Brilliant
Magnificent Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
White-bellied Mountain Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Volcano Hummingbird
Resplendent Quetzal
Red-headed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Spotted Barbtail
Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Mountain Elaenia
Torrent Tyrannulet
Tufted Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Golden-bellied Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Yellow-winged Vireo
Brown-capped Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Brown Jay
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Mountain Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Flame-throated Warbler
Tropical Parula
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilsons Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Black-cheeked Warbler
Common Bush-Tanager
Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Shining Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Slaty Flowerpiercer
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
White-naped Brush-Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Buff-throated Saltator
Eastern Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
biodiversity bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Introduction

A Dozen Birds from Poas to Sarapiqui

Always lots of birds to see in Costa Rica. The more you look, the  more you see, especially when you spend time in birdy habitats. This past week, a couple of days guiding along the Poas-Cinchona-Sarapiqui turned up an expected fine variety of avian species. Since the focus was on getting video footage of birds, we had plenty of photo opportunities including the twelve birds seen below.

In the high elevation habitats on Poas, we had a fair selection of temperate zone species including Buffy Tuftedcheek, brief looks at an over shy male Resplendent Quetzal, Black Guan, and several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds among other species including…

A male Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher spent the entire day in a few fruiting bushes.
Hairy Woodpeckers- not so exciting but an interesting endemic subspecies that is fun to watch.

The Volcan Restaurant is a short drive downslope from the temperate zone and an excellent place for watching hummingbirds (we had 7 species). The forest along the riparian zone at that spot can also be good although we saw little when we were there.

Purple-throated Mountain Gems are one of the most common hummingbird species at that site and elevation.
Stunning Violet Sabrewings are also present.

On Wednesday, we started the day out at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona. This site continues to be an excellent place for seeing several hummingbirds (we had 8 species) and is great for taking pictures of other birds as well. The day we were there, the cloudy weather was perfect for bird photography.

Happily, Emerald Toucanets showed up to eat papaya and entertain with stunning colors at close range.
The other stars of the show were a pair of Prong-billed Barbets.

After enjoying the hummingbird extravaganza (8 species) and getting close looks at Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers, we headed down to the Nature Pavilion, one of the best sites for bird photography in Costa Rica. The lighting was excellent, there was a good amount of activity at and near the feeders, a Rufous-winged Woodpecker called and foraged in the trees behind us, and other lowland species called and flew overhead. It was a memorable morning indeed with constant photography opportunities.

Golden-hooded Tanagers are one of the stunning birds that visit the feeders at the Nature Pavilion.
Green Honeycreepers come in now and then. The male showed up too but didn't stay long enough for me to get a photo.
Red-throated Ant Tanagers come to the feeders too for rare photo opps of this understory species!

The owners make sure that the feeders are filled with papaya and bananas.

Dave Lando, one of the owners of the Nature Pavilion, puts out more papaya for the birds.
Grayish Saltators are one of three saltator species that come to the feeders.

After the Nature Pavilion, we made a quick stop near La Selva and got looks at a busy flock of around a dozen species including (Chestnut-colored Woodpecker) but the birds were too quick to photograph (not to mention rain and dense vegetation also posing challenges to photography). So, we headed back upslope and escaped the rain for a bit. At a roadside lagoon near San Miguel, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat came in for good photos.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are pretty common in brushy fields.

Olive-crowned Yellowthroat also responded to its song but wouldn’t come close enough for a photo. However, we did manage to get looks at a much less common species.

The White-throated Flycatcher is a very local species in Costa Rica.

After our stop at the lagoon, we made another quick stop near Cinchona and got looks at Silver-throated Tanagers, Speckled Tanagers, Tropical Parulas, and some other birds before the rains begen to fall in earnest. Always a lot of nice birds to watch in Costa Rica!

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Hummingbirds

A Bird Count on Poas

Poas is the name of the volcano that I can see off to the northwest of my home. It’s an obvious stand-alone mountain that is usually topped by clouds. On sunny days, though, close scrutiny of its upper reaches reveals a distinct, flat appearance. That flat part is the edge of the crater and marks the place where most people go when they visit the volcano. As for myself, I rarely go up that high but instead focus on the road up to around the gate of the national park because high elevation birds are more exciting to watch than the crater (since I am a birder and not a crater watcher or vulcanologist- a much more dangerous pastime). Since I can get up to Poas and vicinity quicker than other areas with good habitat, I bird and guide around there with some regularity. I also do an annual breeding bird count and this is nice because it forces me to head up there by 5 in the morning.

Although the afternoon birding on Poas tends to be great, that early hour does give a good idea of what’s flying around those high elevation habitats. In this case, that would be pastures with scattered, epiphyte drenched oaks, temperate zone forest, moist subtropical forest fragments mixed with non-native Guatemalan Cypress, and nice remnant cloud forest in riparian zones that are connected to larger blocks of forest. I start the count at the Volcan Restaurant, end it up near the main gates to the park and hear lots of birds in between. I also see some here and there but as with the majority of bird counts, almost everything is found by sound.

One of the most common birds is the Mountain Elaenia. I think I got more of these birds than any other species at every point.

An inquisitive Mountain Elaenia.

As you can see, this is a typically nondescript flycatcher. It will remind you of an Empid but looks even less distinctive than the resident Black-capped Flycatcher. I suppose White-throated Flycatcher could also show up around Poas but I haven’t seen it there yet.

The first few stops yielded several yodeling Prong-billed Barbets and hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders at the Volcan Restaurant. While guiding there yesterday, just after saying that I had never seen a Scintillant Hummingbird at the restaurant but that they could occur, up pops a rufous-flanked, excellent candidate. After closely inspecting the bird, I called it as a young male Scintillant on account of the mostly rufous tail with narrow subterminal band, rufous flanks sans green, lack of a thin rufous line that goes from the eye to the bill, and a couple of coppery orange feathers on the gorget (which is why I called it a young male although who knows, maybe it’s a female).

Scintillant Hummingbird in Costa Rica at the Volcan Restaurant.

One hummingbird species missed during the count but seen while guiding was a Stripe-tailed. Since this is the least common of the 7 regularly occurring species at their feeders, I was quite pleased to see it.

Female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

Other uncommon species that were recorded during the count were:

  • Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl- Pretty rare in the area but occurs.
  • Resplendent Quetzal- Had one female. They are around but tough to find unless you can locate some fruiting, wild avocados.
  • Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- There were a few calling from the more intact forest on the higher part of the road.
  • Elegant Euphonia- Nice surprise as it seems to be pretty rare around there.
  • Yellow-bellied Siskin- As mundane as a goldfinch might seem to be, this was the rarest bird species from the count. Trapping this bird for cages has eliminated it from many parts of the mountains above the Central Valley.

Species found at nearly every stop included Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher (Poas is a great area for this sleek bird), Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Common Bush Tanager, Band-tailed Pigeon (because they seem to always be flying overhead), and Slate-throated Redstart. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush is also very common in the Poas area. I saw lots as they came out to feed on the road at dawn.

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Here is one pretending to be some kind of Old World bush-robin.

Mountain Thrushes were also coming out onto the road and flying all over the place. No pics of them because they suffer from FNS (flighty nervous syndrome). Sooty Robins don’t though, and once I got up into the temperate zone, they were taking center stage all along the road.

They were perched on fence posts.
Showing off their staring white eyes.
And trying to stare me down!

After losing the staring contest with this Blackbirdish (the Palearctic one) looking thrush, I saw a bunch of other high elevation birds. Bright orange mistletoe was being visited by Green Violetears, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems.

This beautiful mistletoe species is a common sight in high elevation forests of Costa Rica.
I also saw a few Flame-throated Warblers.
And found a Fiery-throated Hummingbird nest.

No bamboo birds this year and not as many quetzals are around but the birding is still always nice and easy around Poas.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

VaraBlanca- Overlooked Costa Rican Birding Hotspot

Birding hotspots don’t just earn that claim to fame for the bird species that show up. While rarities and high quality species are certainly part of the hotspot equation, other factors also determine a site’s eligibility on the hotspot scale. For example, in Costa Rica, we can surmise that birding in the middle of large national parks like Braulio Carillo, Corcovado, and Tortuguero would probably be one of your more exciting days of Costa Rica birding. However, the inaccessible nature of the core areas of those parks makes them ineligible for the hotspot list.

A hotspot should be relatively easy to get to, host more bird species than other sites or certain rarities tough to find elsewhere, and be consistent with the quality experience it delivers. It’s a bit like a five-star hotel or restaurant- you go there because you expect a certain level of service or experience based on consistently good times had by others, especially when those “others” are experts replete with seasoned knowledge. Carara National Park fits this definition of a hotspot in every sense of the word. Most birders who go there see lots of great birds on every visit, in being located along a main highway, it couldn’t be easier to get to, and you consistently come away from the trails with a fine list of quality species.

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Carara is one of the easiest sites for Great Tinamou.

Quebrada Gonzalez also earns hotspot status, albeit a lesser known one on account of the typically challenging birding, especially for tour groups. Many tours pay a brief visit to the place in the hopes of seeing some foothill specialty or catching up with an amazing mixed flock but none stay for the entire day. That’s reasonable given the slow periods and tough forest birding, but walk the same trail twice during a day of birding and you will be surprised at what you find. When I do that, I usually find foothill specialties missed during the morning, run into more mixed flocks, and just see more rare birds in general. It takes time but the birds eventually come out of the woodwork.

The Lattice-tailed Trogon is one of the regular species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

A third type of hotspot is the one that is overlooked. It usually gets passed by because the regular tours either aren’t aware of the birding opportunities or don’t think it’s worth their while. These are the hotspots that are found by local birders because they have the time to check them out on a regular basis and they can be surprisingly close to the San Jose area.  One such hotspot is Varablanca and surroundings. Situated on the saddle between the Barva and Poas volcanoes, it’s strategic location on the continental divide and makes for an excellent base to use on a birding trip. The birding potential of the Varablanca area is made apparent when you consider that I routinely get over 100 species on day tours there. The following are some of the other reasons why Varablanca is probably one of the best overlooked hotspots in Costa Rica:

1. Access: Varablanca is on one of the main routes between the Central Valley and the Caribbean lowlands (route 5) and because of this, can be reached by good roads from the San Jose area in an hour or so. Several public buses also use this route. Get there by heading up through Barva and Santa Barbara or follow the signs to Poas Volcano from Alajuela and then follow signs towards Poas Volcano Lodge. When you come to a small gas station with a turn off to Sarapiqui and the Waterfall Gardens, you have reached Varablanca central.

2. Infrastructure: Lodging ranges from several mid-priced cabinas like the cozy and friendly Poas Lodge to more expensive, just as friendly accommodation at the beautiful Poas Volcano Lodge. There are small stores in the area and restaurants include everything from small family diners to Colbert, one of the better French restaurants in the country (yes, it is damn good and very well priced).

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The quaint Cabanas Varablanca have good rooms for a great price.

3. Good habitat right around Varablanca: While the immediate habitat around Varablanca might look patchy, don’t be fooled into thinking that the area around your lodging isn’t worth birding. For example, when our local birding club stayed at the Cabinas Varablanca, we were pleasantly surprised by Prong-billed Parbet, Emerald Toucanet, both silky-flycatchers, Spangle-cheeked tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Yellow-thighed Finches, and several other cloud forest species in the second growth right behind the cabins. That second growth is connected to better forest in a hidden ravine that is in turn connected to forest on Volcan Barva and I bet it holds a lot more surprises (like the singing Yellow-bellied Siskin I had around there in March).

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Chlorophonias are fairly common in the area.

4. A variety of other habitats and birding sites: Don’t just bird around Varablanca. The main reason this area is a hotspot is because it can be used to easily access various quality habitats that host hundreds of bird species.

High elevation forest on Poas is good for Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Vireo, and most highland specialties including R. Quetzal, Sooty Robin, and may even offer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are especially common at high elevations on Poas.

Cloud forest is accessible at  sites on the way to Poas. One of the best is at the Volcan Restaurant. Check out the hummingbirds coming to their feeders and watch for a wide assortment of cloud forest species in the middle elevation forest around the restaurant. The place can sees daily visits by Resplendent Quetzal in March and April when the many wild avocados are in fruit.

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A Magnificent Hummingbird at the Volcan Restaurant feeders.

Cloud forest can also be birded on the way to Cinchona and has Barred Becard, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, and hundreds of other possibilities. The area around the Peace Lodge can be especially good and if you want to pay the $30 entrance fee, you will see some of the best hummingbird action in the country as well as near guaranteed Sooty-faced Finch.

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At Cinchona, stop at the Hummingbird cafe for close looks at middle elevation species like Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Head a bit further down and roadside birding above the Virgen del Socorro canyon can yield fantastic mixed flocks of tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, and even rarities like Lovely Cotinga (saw a male there earlier this year, and I routinely get Black-crested Coquette, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and other foothill birds).

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What the habitat looks like above Virgen del Socorro.

Head into the Virgen del Socorro canyon and you can run into more mixed flocks, might pick up Immaculate Antbird, and have a chance at dozens of quality species including Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers.

Keep following the road up out of the canyon, head to the right to pass by the Albergue del Socorro (or stay there) and you can bird in excellent middle elevation forest all the way back up to the village of San Rafael and meet back up with Route 5 maybe 5 or 6 ks before Varablanca. This little-birded road goes through habitat connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park and can probably turn up just about every middle elevation species possible. Some of the extra good birds I have had there during a few visits are Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Brown-billed Scythebill, Lattice-tailed Trogon, and White-crowned Manakin.

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Awesome middle elevation forest indeed.

Even the Sarapiqui lowlands aren’t that far away from Varablanca. If you drive straight there, it might take 40 minutes to an hour. The Eco-observatory and Tirimbina are two of the best Sarapiqui birding sites that are fairly close to Varablanca.

Looking for Snowy Cotinga from the Eco-Observatory deck (we saw one).

5. Rarities and quality species: Given that quality high elevation, middle elevation, and lowland forest are all within striking range from Varablanca, there are really too many quality birds to mention. Literally hundreds of species are possible including Great Green Macaw (in Sarapiqui for much of the year and around Virgen del Socorro from at least September to November), Sunbittern, R. Quetzal, Black Guan, various raptors, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and loads of hummingbirds and tanagers. Seeding bamboo in 2012 also turned up Barred Parakeet, Slaty Finch, and lots of Peg-billed Finch.

This Black Guan was right on the main road between Varablanca and Cinchona.

Had the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal on most trips to Poas this year.

If you are looking for a great base for birding most elevations on the Caribbean slope, in my opinion, Varablanca is one of the best options. Not to mention, the scenery is pretty nice too.

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