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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!

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A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!