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Costa Rica Birding at Cinchona and Route 126: 3 Strategies

Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.

It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.

A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.

This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.

Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.

Birds like the stunning Crimson-collared Tanager are waiting for you.

Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.

More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:

Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else

I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.

If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).

Roosting Bare-shanked Screech-owls near Poas. This species is a common bird of highland habitats in Costa Rica.

From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.

When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.

At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.

Ornate Hawk Eagle is uncommon but regular in this area.

Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.

While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.

Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.

Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.

Bird Photography in Costa Rica

You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.

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Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.

Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!

After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.

Dave and Daves

Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica

If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.

After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.

Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.

Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.

No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.

To learn more about birding routes in Costa Rica, sites, and how to find and identify more birds, prepare for your trip with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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Reminders and Reasons to Visit Cinchona When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so many fantastic sites for birding, it can be a challenge to know where to go. How to pick the sites for your best birding experience? The answer depends on how you want to connect with birds, what you want to see, and budgets for time and money.

I’ll leave a more thorough treatise of such questions and answers for future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on a site that would be tough to leave off of any birding itinerary for Costa Rica. This special spot is one of the classic birding sites in Costa Rica, a location that has made a positive impact on thousands of birders (as well as non-birders), the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

Also known as the Cafe Colibri and the Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando, I have often written about the benefits and beauty of this site. Even so, no birding spot is static, especially ones like Cinchona where tropical forest is growing back with a vengeance. Check out these reminders and reasons to include a visit to Cinchona during a birding trip to Costa Rica:

Regenerating Forest Can Grow Fast

Before the 2009 earthquake, the Cafe Colibri was a two story structure situated next to mature, fairly intact forest. At least that’s sort of how I recall it. I do know that more birds were present and even umbrellabird was seen every now and then (!). Tragically, more than 30 people died in the the 6.6 earthquake, it destroyed the two story structure that was the original Cafe Colibri, an adjacent, similar establishment, and much of the adjacent forest.

Although the disaster was a terrible blow to Cinchona in every possible way, since 2009, regarding the Cafe Colibri, it has been rebuilt on the original foundations, and the forest has been steadily growing back. It will take decades before trees reach their previous heights but as the vegetation has grown, more birds have returned, including species that are more dependent on forest.

With that in mind, when visiting the Cafe Colibri, keep an eye out for such birds as Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and other species. These species have been occurring with more frequency and it wouldn’t be all that surprising for shy birds like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, and foliage-gleaners to eventually make appearances. Let’s hope so!

Ornate Hawk-Eagle!

While visiting Cinchona yesterday, the owner and matriarch of the Colibri Cafe mentioned that an interesting bird had been seen. I wondered what it might be, maybe some different tanager at the feeder? Much to my surprise, she showed me a picture of a subadult Ornate Hawk-eagle!

A pair of this fancy, powerful raptor live rather close to Cinchona but they seem to mostly stick to forests away from the main road. It’s not that often that one is seen in the canyon and usually not perched in one of the remnant, bromeliad covered trees visible from the Cafe Colibri. As the habitat improves, we can only hope that this becomes a more regular occurrence.

Still Great for Hummingbirds, Maybe Even Better

Cinchona has always been a hummingbird hotspot. Time of year and weather conditions can have an effect on the number of birds and species but a visit is always warranted, especially when 7 or 8 species of hummingbirds can be accompanied by fresh, delicious Costa Rican coffee. Even better, this past year, yesterday included, the uncommon and local Black-bellied Hummingbird has become regular at Cinchona. There might be a delay for the bird to appear but it’s hard to find fault with a wait highlighted by close views of Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem!

The barbets are nice too…

More Parking Spaces…and Donkeys

The Cafe Colibri now has paved and delineated parking spots on both sides of the road that make it that much easer to enjoy this special place. For whatever reason, the other side of the road also has a corral with a couple of donkeys (if you feel like ticking off the “hand feeding of mules” box on your list of things to do during a birding trip to Costa Rica).

Every Visit Helps a Local Business that Loves Birds, Birders, and Conservation

Supporting the people who support birders, birds, and bird awareness is just as important as being treated to exquisite views of Green Thorntails. Please support the Cafe Colibri by enjoying a meal and leaving a generous donation.

If traveling to or from Sarapiqui on Route 126, make sure to visit one of Costa Rica’s first classic birding sites, the Cafe Colibri. If planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, see which places to visit and prepare for your trip with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Rainy Day in Costa Rica? Go to the Colibri Cafe at Cinchona!

Rain? In Costa Rica? Isn’t it the sunny, wonderful dry season? Yes, yes, and another affirmative but that dry part is mostly on the Pacific side of the country. Head to the ubiquitous mountains or to the Caribbean slope and a birder is easily greeted by mist, rain, and other forms of precipitation.

Mary, her daughter, Alec Humann, and I had that experience just the other day when we visited the Poas area. Although sun and wind reigned at our starting and ending points, they sandwiched a hefty dose of mist and rain on Poas and Cinchona.

Such weather might be challenging for cameras and staying dry but in the mountains of Costa Rica, it typically makes for excellent birding. We exchanged walking in the rain for enjoying the feeder action at Cinchona and were not disappointed. We were treated to a non-stop display of bird activity from 8 until 11 and had close looks at everything from Violet Sabrewing to Black-bellied Hummingbird and two Buff-fronted Quail-Doves.

The owners of the Colibri Cafe have mentioned more than once that rainy days at Cinchona are the best days for birds, after Sunday, I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. These were some of the birds we took pictures of:

Northern Emerald Toucanet- a few were present.

Crimson-collared Tanager- not always at Cinchona, nice to see this beauty.

Grayish Saltator- one of three saltator species present.

Green-crowned Brilliant.

Summer Tanager- a common, beautiful wintering species in Costa Rica.

Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- fantastic to see this shy bird walk into the open! Rainy days are good for this one.

Black Guan- A few have been using the feeders for the past few months. I hope they continue at Cinchona.

If visiting the Colibri Cafe (AKA Mirador Catarata San Fernando), please leave a donation for the birds in addition to enjoying coffee and lunch. Keep an eye on the ground as well as the feeders and scan the forest on the other side of the canyon. If you see bright blue bird sitting out there, please eBird it and mention it in the comments!

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Visit The New Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe when Birding Costa Rica

Cinchona is known in Costa Rica as the town that was destroyed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake on January 9th, 2009. Most structures in that quaint town and the surrounding area collapsed, landslides wiped out large sections of route 126, and more than 30 people lost their lives. Birders were especially familiar with the area around Cinchona because of several birding sites situated along route 126. Virgen del Socorro was one of the most famous sites as it was an excellent area for middle elevation birds of the Caribbean Slope and the most reliable place in Costa Rica for seeing Lanceolated Monklet.

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Virgen del Socorro before the earthquake.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens were another site that was frequented by birders and many tourists, but the crown jewel for birding were two cafes with serious hummingbird action and fruit feeders that attracted both species of barbets, tanagers, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, and others. The abundance of birds, friendly owners, and lack of an entrance fee made those cafes a welcome, requisite stop when taking this scenic route to the Sarapiqui area.

All of these places were unfortunately very close to the epicenter of the quake and were severely damaged or seemed to have just disappeared. The road also vanished in places (it ran along the fault line that caused the quake) and it looked as if those classic birding sites were gone for good. More than two years later, I am happy to report that this is not the case. The Waterfall Gardens were back up and running a matter of months after the earthquake, and major improvements have been made to route 126. On a trip to the area last weekend, we were surprised to see how much work had been done on the road. Although it still lacks pavement, it has been widened and graded for at least half of its length and it looked like road crews were fixing up the other half as well. Although the upper section wasn’t officially open, many cars (including two wheel drive vehicles) and public buses are using it.

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Wide, graded road.

Habitat isn’t as good as it used to be along the lower parts of the road but there are some promising areas on the upper section that produced birds such as Dark Pewee, Tufted Flycatcher, a flyby Chiriqui Quail-Dove (!), Barred Becard, Red-faced Spinetail, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and other expected middle elevation species during visits in February. You can also visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens to watch an abundance of hummingbirds and see their “zoo” of rescued animals but to be honest, the $35 per person entrance is too steep of a price to pay for birding in my opinion, and especially so because you can see the same species at other sites in the area.

One of these is the new Hummingbird Cafe. It appears to be located on or near the same spot as the former and might be run by the same people. It is much smaller and a shadow of its former birding glory but it’s still worth a stop. On a visit last weekend, the following hummingbird species came to their three feeders: Violet Sabrewing, Green Violetear, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. Most of these were single birds and there wasn’t a huge amount of action but I still got some ok shots and other species probably show up from time to time.

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Green Thorntail

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Green Violetear

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Green-crowned Brilliant (female)

We also had a White-crowned Parrot that perched on a snag and showed off its colors.

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Virgen del Socorro was visible down below and a road could be discerned that descended into the gorge but as far as we could tell, it was only accessible from the other side of the river. Despite being very familiar with the entrance road to Virgen del Socorro, I failed to find it. I still hope it’s there but strongly suspect that it was more or less destroyed. Perhaps the forested gorge at Virgen del Socorro can still be visited from the village of the same name on the other side of the river? I fear that much habitat was destroyed by earthquake spawned landslides and floods but it would be nice to see if the monklet is still around as well as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them there in the past and they were also seen on rare occasions).

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Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.