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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

An Impressive Day of Birding around Poas

Poas Volcano is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Buses, cars, and even bicycles make the long, uphill trek to Poas National Park every day of the year, weekends being especially popular. Despite the lines of folks who undertake the Poas pilgrimage, very few are birders. They are there for the volcano and they walk up to the edge of the crater to peer down into its sulphury depths and feel as if they have accomplished something. I shouldn’t chide them though because looking into an active volcano is always a feat worthy of effort and mention. It’s a spectacular view on clear mornings and a surreal experience when the clouds roll in to shroud the crater from peering eyes. Definitely worth a visit and especially because it’s an easy hour’s drive from the San Jose area.

Nevertheless, after you get that look into the mouth of the volcano, it’s worth your while to bird the area for the rest of the day. Heck, it might even be worth your while to bird the area for a week! Although Poas and surroundings don’t really find their way into most birding tour itineraries, the general area is much better for birding than most people realize. Not convinced? You might be after reading about yesterday’s guiding in the area:

After picking up Lisa (she who so graciously hired me to guide her) from Casa Tias in Escazu (wonderful bed and breakfast by the way), we wound our way up the flanks of Poas until reaching the Restaurant de Volcan. The lack of shoulders on Costa Rican roads prevented us from doing any roadside birding in the coffee plantations on the way up but we still managed to get fantastic, close looks at a Coyote. Up at the restaurant, the usual set of hummingbirds were doing their thing at the feeders. In a matter of seconds, we watched Violet Sabrewings, Magnificent (Rivoli’s) Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, Green Violet-ears, Volcano Hummingbirds, and Green-crowned Brilliants as they chased each other around and guzzled sugar water.

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The wonderfully bold and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

While watching the hummingbirds, a Resplendent Quetzal began to call and before we knew it, a male flew across the road in deep bounding flight! It wasn’t all that close but the combination of beryl upperparts and red-velvet unders was evident. Shortly thereafter, we watched the following species coming to the edge of the forest in quick succession:

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Prong-billed Barbet- from another day of birding at Poas and Cinchona.

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Mountain Elaenia- one of the most common species there.

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Close encounters of the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher kind!

Black-thighed Grosbeak- what a hefty, beautiful bird.

We also picked up Band-tailed Pigeon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Yellowish Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and heard some distant (and therefore invisible) Barred Parakeets and a Flame-colored Tanager.

After buying some sugary stuff from the restaurant and listening the owner tell us about finding Mountain Lion scat up the hill across the street, we headed over to Varablanca to look for birds on the road that leads to Cinchona (and eventually the Sarapiqui lowlands). As it began to rain, I decided that we might as well check another forested riparian zone on the route that goes past Varablanca and eventually leads down to Santa Barbara. Although the Slaty Finches that were present a few weeks ago had apparently flown the coupe, we still managed excellent looks at Ochraceous Wren and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and saw a few more Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. As it started to clear up, we left with high hopes to bird our way to Cinchona.

A few stops in places with the necessary combination of a spot to park the car and roadside forest resulted in a couple of small mixed flocks with highlights being Barred Becard, Dark Pewee, and Yellow-winged Vireo. Near the Peace Lodge, we also got more, ridiculously close looks at Slate-throated Redstarts, Paltry Tyrannulet, and the most confiding Ruddy Pigeon of my birding career.

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This Ruddy Pigeon even had the decency to vocalize and reveal its name!

Down at the La Paz waterfall, we made a brief stop to check for Torrent Tyrannulet. As I scanned the boulders in the rushing water, Lisa asked, “What’s this bird over here in the garbage?” Sure enough, there was our tyrannulet playing around in some random piece of plastic trash. We ticked the “trashy” tyrannulet and moved on. After being unsuccessful in our attempt to see a singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (but picking up Yellow-bellied Elaenia in the process), we drove on past the Cinchona Cafe de Colibries to check out a birdy area between there and Virgen del Socorro.

This turned out to be a fateful decision.

I parked across the street from the Eucalyptus patch that frequently turns up good birds and sure enough, as soon as I exited the vehicle, a Tufted Flycatcher called and a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang from down in the woods. As I pulled out my playback device to see if we could entice that beautiful orange-eye-ringed bird to show itself, another bird in flight caught my eye and I automatically raised my bins to check it out. Although my first impression was of a Blue-gray Tanager or maybe Clay-colored Thrush that was flying away from me against a white, cloudy background, I stayed on the bird because I wasn’t entirely sure of its identification. As soon as it flew against a backdrop of green vegetation, it transformed into a flying chunk of turquoise and as it swooped up to the top of a tree, I heard myself saying, “Cotinga! Lovely Cotinga!” I think this was followed up by “Do you see it? This is a very rare bird!” After hearing Lisa say that she was on it, I sprinted back to the car for my scope (this of course being the only time I left it in the car). Just after getting the scope out, I then heard Lisa say, “It flew” so, there will be no photo of Lovely Cotinga on the blog today. So close..so close..

Nevertheless, I was pretty happy to see the bird and even happier that Lisa got to see this rarity. In case you are wondering how rare Lovely Cotinga is in Costa Rica, this was only the second time I have ever seen this species, the first being a female at Las Heliconias in April, 2001.  Even that was one of the few times it has been seen at that excellent site and I know one top CR birder who didn’t see his first Lovely Cotinga until birding in the country for maybe 20 years (?) and he spends most of his time in the field.

Elated by our good if brief sighting of Lovely Cotinga, we then watched beautiful Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers in the same area along with a much duller female Hepatic Tanager and an electric Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. By the time we saw the dacnis, lunch was calling so we headed back to the Colibri Cafe and enjoyed sumptuous home-cooked food while being entertained by several hummingbirds, including two new ones for the day: Coppery-headed Emerald and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

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The dacnis…it’s electric! -Think of that the next time you are forced to do the Electric Slide at a wedding.

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The uncommon White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Since it started to rain, we hung out there for a while and picked up Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Palm Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch before braving the downpour to head back uphill over a horribly pot-holed and rain-channeled road that we shared with other cars, buses, and hefty trucks. On a side note, sadly, I don’t think that I will be taking that road again until it gets fixed. It’s really gotten that bad!

Although the rain showed no sign of abating, we headed way uphill to the national park entrance in the hope that it would be maybe sprinkling as opposed to pouring. The rain was actually somewhere in between so we looked a bit around there before giving up and slowly driving back down through the temperate rainforests. As the rain lightened, the birds made themselves known and it wasn’t long before we were shielding bins from falling water while looking at a  Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

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The oriolish, beautiful Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

Further downhill, to our great fortune, the rain came close to stopping at a roadside spot that often yields good stuff. Sure enough, we picked up Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, Mountain Thrush, and Fiery-throated Hummingbird. While peering into the depths of a fruiting avocado, we then managed to see a Black Guan!  Before long, a Resplendent Quetzal also started to call! Although it sounded far off at first, we quickly realizes that it was quite close and in a matter of minutes, we were watching our second male Resplendent Quetzal of the day! Much better looks at this one as it sang from its perch. Although it had already molted its long tail feathers, the rest of the bird was still much appreciated.

Another drive back up to the park entrance in search of Sooty Robin and Large-footed Finch didn’t bag those birds but we did get nice looks at Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. That would have been our final bird of the day if it weren’t for a Gray-headed Chachalaca that planed over the car while heading back down into the Central Valley. We got more than 80 species for the day, one that will surely be a memorable one for Lisa. Since she is headed to Bosque del Rio Tigre today, she’s in for some pretty memorable times there too!

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Introduction middle elevations

Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project, Costa Rica

For the past two years, every time I have seen Sara Clark on a Birding Club of Costa Rica field trip, she has asked me when I was going to come up and visit her farm/reforestation project in the mountains above Grecia. Last week, I finally got the chance to accept her invite, walk the hilly trails of her land, and survey the local avifauna. Because Sara was so wonderfully kind to give us a ride up to her place, I was also able to bring  my wife and daughter.

The trip up to Finca Dos Lados was a typical one for rural areas of the Central Valley. On paved roads that formerly felt the heavy wheels of painted, wooden ox-carts, we twisted and turned our way up and down hills and over small bridges on our way to our destination. The scenery was typical for the western central valley; fields of sugar cane, rows of coffee bushes (some shaded by a few trees, others blazed by the tropical sun), lush, wooded ravines, small towns, and “development”.

Just about the only forest left in the central valley are riparian remnants because of the tremendous pressures that a growing population has placed on the land and past government incentives to “improve” the land by actively deforesting it. The fruits of this sad “improvement” were all too apparent as we ascended a ridge to Sara’s place from Sarchi and passed near eroded cattle pastures with few cows and even fewer trees. Forests used to cover those slopes. Moist tropical forests with Three-wattled Bellbirds, trogons, Long-tailed Manakins, monkeys, and more. Now the barren slopes hosted non-native, domesticated ungulates, their parasites, and not much else because landowners in the area didn’t know of any other way to use the land.

On a bright note, the days of encouragement to “tame” the land in Costa Rica by turning it into an unwholesome pseudo-savanna are a thing of the past. Nowadays, the incentives are for reforestation and maintaining the forest already growing on your land. The government doesn’t pay out a huge amount for doing this but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Finca Dos Lados is in this program and has planted hundreds (maybe thousands?) of trees including several wild avocados (the preferred food of Resplendent Quetzals). Because Sara’s land is mostly growing back from bare pasture, there isn’t a huge number of bird species present. There are more than when non-native grass was one of the only plants around though, and there will be a lot more in the future since her land acts as one of the biological corridors between the forests of Volcan Poas and Juan Castro Blanco National Park.

Note the difference between Finca Dos Lados on the right(where reforestation is occurring), and neighboring land on the left (overgrazed by cows).

Here we are arriving at the entrance to Finca Dos Lados.

On the way in, we stopped at this shrine surrounded by vegetation that has grown up in just seven years. This was a birdy spot with Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Slate-throated Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, and of course the true to its name, Common Bush Tanager.

One of the many Common Bush Tanagers at Finca Dos Lados.

I don’t think the tanagers were the most common bird species though. That distinction, goes to the Mountain Elaenia.

Mountain Elaenias rule at Finca Dos Lados, Costa Rica. These small Empid-looking flycatchers were truly living large in the young second growth. I would say that around 70% of the birds I saw or heard were this species.

Other common birds were Red-billed and Band-tailed Pigeons.

Always nice to see a tree of Band-tailed Pigeons. As a kid, for me, this was one of those “western” birds that lived too far away in the coniferous forests of the west to even dream of seeing.

A closer look.

Near the pigeons, I was lucky to have this stunning Black-thighed Grosbeak pose for pictures.

Finca Dos Lados is set up nicely for researchers and volunteers who would like to help out, or carry out studies related to cloud forest regeneration or migration between the Pacific and Atlantic slopes. There are several bunk beds, a big kitchen, and several trails that access the continental divide and cloud forest on the Caribbean Slope. There are areas of primary forest although it takes a few hours of hiking to access it. I hope to survey those forests some day.

Standing on the continental divide.

Looking onto the Caribbean slope from the divide. I could hear either a Collared or Orange-bellied Trogon calling from the forest below. We also got glimpses of Zeledonia in this area.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers (such as the one above) were common here along with Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Flame-colored Tanager, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Sooty Robin, Yellow-thighed finch, Black and Yellow Silky, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Despite intently looking and listening, and being entertained by the duetting of Prong-billed Barbets that echoed throughout the valley during my stay, there weren’t any signs of bellbirds. With the number of fruiting trees that have been planted, though, future visitors to Finca dos Lados will probably get the chance to hear their loud, clanging calls.

Hopefully, Miranda will be one of them.