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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
"Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations sites for day trips

Costa Rica birding near San Ramon

San Ramon is a small city on the western edge of the central valley in Costa Rica. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer for birding in Costa Rica but some nearby areas have a lot of potential. Although I know of a few local birders who visit the cloud forests and middle elevation rainforests near San Ramon, since I have never seen this area mentioned in a trip report, I suspect that it isn’t on most people’s birding agenda.

This is probably due to the sites being located off the regularly beaten path when birding Costa Rica. However, after some recent exploration near San Ramon, I think that every birder should make some time for birding this area, especially if they are on their way to Arenal.

Since the closing of the Cinchona road (nope, not fixed yet and don’t expect that anytime soon), there are three main routes that people usually take to get to Arenal from San Jose. The most popular route is the road that passes through Grecia and Zarcero before crossing over to the Caribbean Slope and reaching Ciudad Quesada. This route is probably the quickest but it’s also the least birdy.

The most adventurous route is the road that passes through Bajos del Toro. This steep road goes through some nice cloud forest and isn’t very busy but I will post about that some other time.

The third route (and the one that this post does deal with) is highway 141 that leaves San Ramon and passes through Los Angeles (the Costa Rican version is vastly different from the American one) on its way to La Fortuna. In fact, even if you didn’t want to stop for birds on your way to Arenal, this is the most direct and scenic route to La Fortuna. That said, you should ALWAYS stop and bird along the way because this underbirded area has lots of great middle elevation forest!

This road provides access to a number of excellent sites including Pocosol, but the two places I visited this past Sunday are the most accessible; (1) The road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and (2) the San Luis Canopy Restaurant.

You will see the road to Manuel Brenes on the left, just as you reach an interesting marsh (aren’t they all) and lakes on the right side of the road. These lakes are supposedly good for Pied-billed Grebe although we didn’t see this uncommon Costa Rican resident on Sunday. I was expecting the usual rutted, rough track but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was in pretty good condition. Although you have to watch out for menacing rocks, and feel scared crossing small bridges, even a two wheel drive could manage this birdy track.

Yes, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve is a birdy track AND it has almost no traffic!

A birdy looking track.

It passes through nice middle elevation forest (800 meters) for several kilometers before coming to a more open area where the road forks. Even the open area was good and looked like the perfect place to scan treetops for Lovely Cotinga. We didn’t continue past the fork and I suspect the road gets worse from there but who knows?

Despite getting rained out for half of the morning, we had a pretty good selection of species and I know this area has much more to offer (others have seen antswarms and Tiny Hawk for example). Once the rain stopped, we saw:

Too rainy to fly today.

Perched Short-tailed Hawks. I am pretty sure this is the only time I have seen this species on a perch anywhere (I have probably seen at least a couple hundred in flight). We also got a perched White Hawk from the same location

The beautiful White Hawk is seen now and then when birding Costa Rica.

in addition to Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Guan (pretty common along the road), flybys of Brown-hooded Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and tanagers such as Passerini’s, Crimson-collared, Silver-throated, Palm, and the local Blue and Gold.

Blue and Gold Tanager sharing a tree with a much duller Palm Tanager.

Mixed flocks along the road had Spotted Woodcreeper,

Spotted Woodcreeper is the common woodcreeper of foothill and middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica.

Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (no pic but trust me, we had perfect looks at this warbler-like flycatcher), Plain Xenops, White-ruffed Manakin, Lesser Greenlet, noisy Olive Tanagers, Black and Yellow Tanagers, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

The lack of trails going into the forest makes it very difficult to see the Thicket Antpittas and Black-headed Antthrushes that we heard but the area is still very much worth a visit and can even be done as a day trip from San Jose (about an hour and a half drive).

Another view of this birdy road.

The other thing that makes this a great site for a day trip is the nearby Arboleda Restaurant at the San Luis Canopy. Watch for it on the east side of the road on your way back to San Jose. Or, you can stop there before you get to the road to Manuel Brenes but it’s better to visit this site for lunch.

The Arboleda Restaurant is a quick 10 minute drive from the entrance to Manuel Brenes road.

The San Luis Canopy site mostly does those canopy zipline tours but they also have several hummingbird feeders and views into the cloud forest from the restaurant (which is very good and has decent prices). They also have a trail but it’s not very developed and is more for maintaining the ziplines. The hummingbird feeders are the main attraction and showcase such stars as Green-crowned Brilliant,

Green-crowned Brilliants are common at cloud forest feeders when birding Costa Rica.

Coppery-headed Emerald,

One of Costa Rica's endemic bird species.

Green Hermit,

Green Hermits are pretty common in foothill and cloud forests when birding Costa Rica.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph,

Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of the more commonly seen hummingbirds of Costa Rican rainforests.

the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- the de-facto hummingbird when birding Costa Rica.

and Green Thorntail.

Green Thorntails are rather local in Costa Rica.

I hope to make this one of my regular birding sites and will offer day tours here soon because I am sure that the forests near San Ramon have a lot more in store when birding Costa Rica!