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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Good Birding near San Ramon on Monday

I normally don’t get the chance to go birding on Mondays. The morning is typically reserved for bringing my daughter to the babysitter, and the rest of the day sees me sitting in front of the computer. I hear TKs and Rufous-collared Sparrows in the early part of the day, envy the freedom of Red-billed Pigeons, White-winged Doves, Blue and white Swallows, and Blue-gray Tanagers as I drive through narrow, busy streets, and always wish I was exploring luscious rainforests on the other side of the mountains. The GPS insists that they are so close (20 miles in a straight line) but the dramatically upheaved topography and my schedule ensure that the green havens are a bit too far for a quick visit.

Unless I am guiding (and I give a thousand thanks to everyone I have guided), my birding in Costa Rica is usually limited to the weekend. This past Monday was the happy exception as I was tasked with delivering binoculars to a young guide who lives just outside of La Fortuna. He had been waiting months for those binoculars because of the difficulties associated with him coming up to the Central Valley and me driving over to the Arenal area. I didn’t want to send them with the local mail service because I frankly didn’t want to risk losing that precious cargo, or having them arrive a month later. I didn’t have to bring Miranda to the babysitter in the morning because she spent the night there on Sunday (and surely enjoyed it because she got to hang out with her Madrina or Godmother), so Monday was the day to drive to La Fortuna AND bird along the way!

I left just before the break of dawn- one of the best times for driving because of the dearth of traffic- and headed west on the highway towards the small city of San Ramon. I drove with the windows down to listen for birds as I coasted down towards the airport but the only things I heard were Great-tailed Grackles, TKs, Grayish Saltators, Rufous-collared Sparrows, and Blue-gray Tanagers. I am always on the listen for Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow to find more sites for this species and make a roughshod attempt at assessing its habitat needs, but no such luck in hearing any on Monday.

The windows went back up once I reached the highway and traffic picked up. Even at five a.m., trucks were barreling along and people were waiting for buses. I passed the sugarcane fields and patchy moist forests around Grecia and Palmares, and took the turn off to San Ramon before the highway starts its descent to Puntarenas and the Pacific lowlands. As I drove through town, overcast skies made me wonder if rain would foil my attempts at getting bird recordings and pictures. Things didn’t look any better as I made my way over the low pass to the Caribbean Slope.

birding Costa Rica

There’s fog in them there hills…

The drive over the pass near San Ramon is typically a misty trip but on Monday the fog was a curtain of damp, dingy cotton. I slowly made my way along the road and wondered where the bottom of the cloud was located. The songs of Eastern Meadowlarks and Bronzed Cowbirds issued from the ether-like surroundings and were testament to the tragic conversion of forest to pasture that occurred decades before any protected areas in Costa Rica even existed as a concept. When I heard the hurried songs of Mountain Robins and cheerful snippets of Slate-throated Redstarts, I knew that I had once again reached forested areas, and not long after, the  fog lifted to reveal dripping cloud forest and light rain near the Nectandra Institute and the San Luis Canopy.

The hurried song of a Mountain Robin

I was tempted to make a stop at the San Luis Canopy to scan a forested hillside for Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga, but just drove on past because I wanted to maximize my time along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve. I reached this excellent middle elevation site 10 minutes later and although it was still raining, the precipitation was exactly how you want it to be- enough to fool the birds into thinking that it’s early morning but not so much that you can’t watch them. I don’t expect that the birds are actually fooled, but when the weather is like this, they sure act as if it’s 7 a.m.  A downside is that it’s not conducive for bird photography so you won’t see many images in this post. I guess you will just have to go there yourself (I can guide you) to see things like Brown-billed Scythebill, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, some sweet antbirds (aren’t they always?), and a bunch of tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

Fog or light rain in tropical forests = awesome birding!

Upon arrival, I had the usual suite of aquatic and second growth species that I get at this site:

Least Grebe, Northern Jacana, calling White-throated Crakes, Ringed Kingfisher, Red-billed Pigeon, flyovers of White-crowned Parrots, Slaty Spinetail, Tropical Pewee, Cinnamon Becard, and Montezuma Oropendolas to name a few.

Just up the hill, things got exciting as soon as I stepped out of the car when a male Black-crested Coquette buzzed around a low bush with small yellow flowers. He got chased off by a Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and before I knew it, I had a perched Blue-throated Goldentail in my bins. A quick look around revealed some of the best hummingbird activity I have seen on this road. Without feeders, the flowering Ingas and bushes turned up 8 species of hummingbirds including Brown Violetear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds! This is the second time I have seen this Pacific Slope species happily sucking nectar from flowers fed by waters that rush down to the Caribbean Sea.

While attempting to ID hummingbird silhouettes (another downside of birding in misty conditions), Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens sang, Yellow-olive Flycatcher was being too hyperactive for photos, and Thicket Antpitta called from its usual inpenetrable haunts. I slowly made my along the road and recorded the voices of a good bunch of birds. Some of these were: Long-billed Gnatwren, Dusky Antbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Brown-hooded Parrot, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush.

This recording gives you an idea of what it sounds like along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, Lesser Greenlet, and Tropical Parula among others): Manuel Brenes Road Medley

While I was capturing the sounds of this little known Costa Rica birding hotspot, I also saw quite a few species including: American Swallow-tailed Kite, Crested Guan, Spotted Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Grosbeak, Passerini’s, Black and Yellow, White-throated Shrike, Speckled, and Hepatic Tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Russet Antshrike, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and others.

The only bird I was able to photograph was one of the best. The image isn’t going to provoke any “oohs” or “aahs”, but if you use your imagination (and a field guide), you should be able to identify it as a Blue and Gold Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Blue and Gold Tanager- uncommon regional endemic often found in this area.

I stayed until ten a.m. or so before heading down the highway to La Fortuna. After meeting and giving the binoculars to Elias (a young guide for the Arenal area with a good handle on the birds there), I should have made my way back to the Central Valley but instead, opted for heading over to Lake Arenal in search of my lifer Keel-billed Motmot. Being short on time and in desperate need of this uncommon species, I chose to broadcast its vocalizations into a few suitable looking spots. I came up empty handed (except for a distant Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher)  and liferless but it was worth a shot. If I hadn’t went looking for the motmot, I wouldn’t have gotten my best images of the day:

birding Costa Rica

Displaying male White-collared Manakin.

He only let me get off two shots before rushing back into the undergrowth but both came out pretty nice!

After success with the manakin, I checked out the lake and ended up getting my year Peregrine Falcon instead of  any interesting waterbirds. As this site can be good for Plumbeous Kite, I was half expecting the falcon-like shape to be that species but I wasn’t complaining when it turned into an adult Peregrine- an awesome bird to end the day. In all honesty, it wasn’t actually the end of my day but I prefer that happy ending over the subsequent experience of driving through cushion thick fog, pounding rain, and horrendous traffic.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Hummingbirds middle elevations

More great birding near San Ramon, Costa Rica

I have been more or less stuck in the not so scenic, urbanized areas of Costa Rica for the past few weeks. Work and family duties (including a children’s birthday party replete with scary clown dancing to reggaeton blasted out of an amplifier) have kept me from birding the beautiful, exciting, rainforests and cloud forests of Costa Rica.

This past Saturday, though, I happily exchanged the cracked sidewalks, barking dogs, and honking cars for the fresh air, tropical forests, and tanagers of rainforests near San Ramon, Costa Rica.

I had the great fortune of guiding our local birding club (appropriately named, “The Birding Club of Costa Rica”) on a day trip to this wonderful, birdy area and although that was just a few days ago, I already can’t wait to go back.

The combination of light traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, accessible Caribbean slope foothill forest, and hummingbird action make this area a true, Costa Rican birding hotspot. Don’t be surprised if you have never read about this area in any trip reports though because it has been almost entirely overlooked by birders visiting Costa Rica. The probable reasons for this are because in the past, there was much less infrastructure, the road connecting San Ramon to La Tigra was pretty bad, and birders could see similar species at Virgen del Socorro.

However, since Virgen del Socorro is no longer a birding option, infrastructure has improved, and because the road is in great shape, every birder visiting Costa Rica should make efforts to include this area on their itinerary, especially so if they are headed to Arenal.

Although the hour and twenty minute drive from San Jose can be tiresome, at least its a scenic one after leaving San Ramon and heading through the cloudy pass that separates the Tilaran and Central mountain ranges.

Despite hot, sunny weather keeping bird activity to a minimum during much of the morning, we still recorded over 100 species on our day trip this past Saturday, our only waterbird being Northern Jacana.

One of our first birds was a White Hawk seen perched across the road from our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy. As we waited for the rest of the group and searched the treetops vain for Lovely Cotinga, other notables were Tawny-throated Leaftosser singing from a ravine and a gorgeous male, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that briefly lit atop a distant tree.

birding Costa Rica White Hawk

White Hawks shine like fresh snow when the blazing, morning tropical sun lights them up.

Zip-lining mannequins assure that you can’t miss The San Luis Canopy.

Once the entire group was present, we drove 10 minutes to the entrance of our birding road at Los Lagos. The lakes gave us our jacana but nothing else save heard only White-throated Crake and a few other open country species. Further up the road, the sunny weather was great for butterflies but made for very slow birding. We heard a few things now and then like Spotted Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant but saw very little other than a lone Piratic Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, lazy Black Vultures, Bananaquit, and Green Honeycreeper.

birding rainforests San Ramon, Costa Rica

Birding the road to Manuel Brenes Biological Reserve

Although the sunny weather was keeping bird activity to a bare minimum, the dry weather was a nice break from the heavy rains that had been soaking the central valley for the past two weeks.

As we made our way up the road, I kept an eye out for fruiting trees and mixed flocks. Small red fruits on an Inga species attracted a bevy of Golden-browed Chlorophonias (at 800 meters, a bit lower than their usual haunts), more Green Honeycreepers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis but mixed flocks had evaded us so far.

By 10 A.M., we reached a place along the road that I call “the overlook”. It’s a high point that looks down into a valley where much of the forest has been replaced by rows of plants most commonly seen in offices throughout the world. There are still number of canopy trees left standing though, and it pays to scan them for birds. Since you can look down at the huge trees, it’s a bit like birding from a canopy tower and in the past I have seen toucans, aracaris, tanagers, raptors, etc. from this point. Because of the elevation and habitat, it also looks like a good spot for Lovely Cotinga.

birding Costa Rica habitat

The overlook.

On sunny Saturday, as good as the overlook appeared, we saw zero birds. The fact that clouds were forming, though, gave us some hope that bird activity would pick up before lunch. It did and it nearly came all at once.

A massive mixed flock greeted us after we descended into the valley from the overlook. They were moving so fast and furious through the back-lit trees that most went unidentified. Those birds that stayed long enough to be seen or who at least paused to call were:

Orange-bellied Trogon (3 or 4 graced the flock), Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, and Olive, Black and yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers.

Orange-bellied Trogon, birding Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogons are endemic to Costa Rica and Panama.

The views were frustrating but at least we were seeing birds! At this point, we made an about face because venturing further up the road would have required vehicles with four-wheel drive. As it had finally become overcast, birding on the way back out was an extreme contrast to our slow morning.

While stopping for a few Olive Tanagers, we had a major bird domino effect where one bird kept leading to another.  The Olive Tanager led us to another mixed flock that suddenly revealed itself in the form of Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Golden-crowned Warblers, more tanagers, and best of all, Brown-billed Scythebill (!).

While searching for this curlew billed woodcreeper, Yellow-eared Toucanet called nearby (!). As I looked for the toucanet (never did find it), two Purplish-backed Quail-Doves began to call (!). A Plain Antvireo revealed itself and the quail-doves glided across the road for brief but tickable views. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar then began to vocalize down the road so we walked over to it, promptly found it and while watching the jacamar, became aware of another, big mixed flock.

biridng Costa Rica Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Iridescent Rufous-tailed Jacamars are fairly common in the Tilaran mountains of Costa Rica.

One of the first birds I got onto was Green Shrike Vireo. This tough canopy skulker only showed itself to a few of the group but at least there were plenty of other birds to watch: Spotted Woodcreepers, another Brown-billed Scythebill giving perfect looks, White-ruffed Manakin, Tropical Gnatcatcher, several tanagers including the likes of White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Speckled in addition to everything we had at the other, big mixed flock.

It was fast, exciting birding but it was also time for lunch so as soon as the birds trouped out of sight, we headed back to our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy to dine at the Arboleda restaurant. The food was good as always although they had “gotten smart” and raised their prices by $1 to $2 per dish. They also changed up the dynamic of their hummingbird feeders which resulted in fewer species. Nevertheless, we still managed close looks at Violet-crowned Woodnymph (the dominator), Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Hummingbird feeders birding Costa Rica

The hummingbird feeders at the Arboleda restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Green crowned brilliant

After lunch and hummingbirds, we drove back up the highway for about 5 minutes to check out more hummingbirds at a hummingbird and butterfly garden. For $5 per person, we watched the same species as the Arboleda restaurant in addition to Violet Sabrewing and White-bellied Mountain-gem. Overall, the hummingbird watching was better at this place. The butterfly garden was good and they also had two loop trails that accessed nice, middle elevation forest.

birding Costa Rica hummingbirds

The nice, educational hummingbird feeder set up.

Coppery-headed Emerald birding Costa Rica

Coppery-headed Emeralds were the dominant species at the hummingbird/butterfly garden. This Costa Rican endemic even chased away the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

Coppery-headed Emerald female

The female Coppery-headed Emerald looks pretty nice too.

The short loop trail is maintained whereas the second, longer one is slippery and muddy. We went on both and saw things like Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanager, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Redstart, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Our best birds were Blue and Gold Tanager both in the forest and right at the parking lot, and Rufous Motmot here at the upper limits of its range.

Rufous Motmot birding Costa Rica

Our Rufous Motmot posing in the dim understory. Check out the mud on its bill from excavating a hole.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating the muddy trail.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating a slippery log bridge over the Rufous Motmot’s hangout.

I’m not sure what time this place opens in the morning but I suspect that their under-birded forest harbors some sweet surprises (think quail-doves and antpittas). Although the forest isn’t very wide, the back part is connected to a large block of habitat.

Lot’s of birding and places to explore along the road between San Ramon and La Tigra- I can’t wait to go back!