Carara is usually on the list of birders visiting Costa Rica so in thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I decided to write a bit about the area, especially because I did some guiding there over the past three weeks. Since all of my birding/guiding around Carara has taken place on the Laguna Meandrica trail (the river trail), around Tarcoles, and on the Guacimo Road, I will focus about those places.
The River Trail: So, it’s actually the Laguna Meandrica Trail but everyone calls it the “River Trail” in English. However, it’s good to know the real name for the trail because there’s a new and improved sign at the entrance. Look for the sign and entrance 2 or 3 kilometers north on the highway from the main Carara HQ. The entrance is tough to see because it’s a short, steep drive down to the parking area. Someone is usually there to watch the vehicles, make sure to pay him at least 2,000 colones because he doesn’t receive any salary (don’t leave the car unless someone is there to watch it!).
Although this trail is famous for its good birding, to be honest, it hasn’t been as outstanding as during the days of yore. It’s still good but as with some others parts of the country, there seem to be fewer overall birds. That subtle change seems to have coincided with drier weather. So, this means that it might just take longer to find the birds while birding the River Trail. However, species missed there can also be found on the HQ trails, so combining the two should work out. That said, we still had some good birds like King Vulture, an antswarm with Bicolored Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Gray-headed Tanagers. I heard a few Royal Flycatchers on two visits, Rufous-tailed Jacamars were showing well, and more than one fig was fruiting. Keep an eye on those figs for cotingas and who knows what else! Although we didn’t see any cotingas at the fruiting trees, on one day, we did glimpse two stunning male Yellow-billed Cotingas around 9 AM!
As far as the oxbow lake goes, the water is much lower and there were few birds present but Boat-billed Herons were still there, and who knows, maybe the more extensive marsh vegetation will result in some unexpected species.
Carara HQ: I haven’t been on the HQ loop trails yet this year but they should be good for Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, and the usual set of rainforest species. As for the HQ itself, there are new bathrooms (small but they function), and the booth for buying tickets is obvious. The park is open from 7 to 4 for the high season. Guides can also be hired there but not all of them are great for birds.
The Bijagual Road: This is the dirt road that goes by Villa Lapas and accesses forested hills at the edge of the national park. Road work is still going on and results in some waits but it doesn’t seem to affect the birding that much. This road always holds promise for birding although it can be pretty quiet during the hot and sunny hours. The up side of birding the road then, though, is having a good chance at King Vulture and raptors like White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Rarer species can also show up and flowering trees might turn up White-crested Coquette (I had one there in late December).
Cerro Lodge: This birding hotspot has been pretty good although I haven’t seen as many parrots or parakeets doing morning flybys (although plenty of macaws). A male Yellow-billed Cotinga is still showing in the morning in distant mangroves (use a scope and look for a bright white dot), Black and white Owls show up but haven’t been as regular, and Crane Hawk is still showing up once in a while. Lots of vegetation is growing up, and there is plenty of Porterweed attracting hummingbirds. Also, the rooms now have air conditioning!
The road to and from Cerro Lodge is still good for birding and continues to be reliable for a wide variety of species including Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-naped Parrot.
The Guacimo Road: Although I haven’t spent much time there yet this year, the dry forest birding seems to be similar to past visits with lots of birds in the riparian zone (including Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and others), and White-throated Magpie Jays, Double-striped Thick Knee, and others species on other parts of the road.
I haven’t been on the mangrove boat tour yet so can’t say much about that but people who have taken it recently have seen thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, and American Pygmy Kingfisher among other bird species.
That’s about it for recent birding around Carara, the only thing else I can say is bird around there for a few days and you will see a lot!
Hope to see you in Costa Rica in 2014! Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app available in the iTunes store and the Amazon app store for Android phones.
As it turned out, hitting sites from the Central Valley and the Poas area was a much better idea than birding on Irazu. Sure, we sacrificed sightings of the junco and wren and missed a few other species that we would have probably gotten at Irazu but also saw probably 50 more species than we would have ticked at the larger volcano. The day began once again at the Bougainvillea and after a quick breakfast stop at the 24 hour McDonald’s in Heredia, we drove on through the empty streets to an area near San Joaquin that has coffee bushes, brushy fields, and a good number of birds.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by flyby flocks of Red-billed Pigeons (in the Central Valley, more common than the good old feral Rock Pigeon), flocks of White-winged Doves, a flock or two of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and a nice bunch of other birds. The best was actual looks at two toughies- Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite, and after a fair bit of waiting and watching, a Prevost’s Ground Sparrow! As with any quail like bird, the bobwhite is typically tough to see while the ground sparrow is just all too uncommon and skulky. Those were our “best” birds but we also saw Rufous-capped Warbler, Grayish Saltator, White-tailed Kite, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and two surprise Orange-fronted Parakeets among other more common species.
The dawn drive through small town streets was pretty birdy and we eventually got hoped for looks at Blue-crowned Motmot perched on a roadside wire, a Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, and a surprise Black-headed Saltator (seems this Caribbean slope species has become established in various parts of the Central Valley). Those fine sightings were followed by the drive up the curvy road to Varablanca with a few stops en route to try for various highland species including the likes of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, and other species of the upper Central Valley zone. During one stop, spishing produced a bonanza of migrant warblers including a year bird- Townsend’s Warbler! The hoped for toucanet failed to show but we still had plenty of time to connect with that little green toucan. Happily, we hit a jackpot of birds at our next stop, a riparian zone that featured a fine mixed flock of highland birds. In a matter of minutes, we got both redstarts, Ruddy Treerunner, Red-faced Spinetail, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Yellow-thighed Finch, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds, and others. It’s so nice when the birds show!
Further on, the other riparian zones were quiet but we were in for a bunch more birds for the day, the next ones being Yellow-winged Vireo, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Gray-breasted Wood Wren behind the parking lot of a small shop in Varablanca. It’s always worth it to keep an eye open for birds at the Varablanca crossroads because I have seen everything from Prong-billed Barbet to Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Emerald Toucanet, and even Yellow-bellied Siskin in that area.
Although I knew that road work was being done on the road that leads to the La Paz waterfall, I still hoped we could hit a few spots on the way down. That didn’t work out due to heavy vehicles parking in the spots where I usually stop so I decided that we should bird a bit along the turn off to San Rafael. This turned out to be a good choice because it yielded our two target regional flycatchers- Golden-bellied and Dark Pewee, finally glimpsed Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, saw Brown-capped Vireo, and saw at least two Emerald Toucanets! We heard but did not see Tufted Flycatcher and got a few other highland species.
After that stop, we drove back uphill and went to the Volcan Restaurant to check the quality riparian habitat and hummingbird feeders before lunch. As usual, the guy who watches the cars there told me about seeing quetzal that morning. Since he is there most of every day, he sees one or two as they move through the riparian corridor and sometimes sees Black Guan as well. It was way more quiet than normal while we were there but the feeders complied with Violet Sabrewing, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and five other species of hummingbirds.
Lunch was delicious as always and eating early gave us more time to look for birds in the higher elevations (and hopefully see them before the afternoon rains). Although it turned out to be the busiest day for traffic I have ever seen on Poas, we still saw most of our targets. The big ones like the guan and quetzal evaded us but I’m not sure if there were that many around because I didn’t see any of the fruits that they usually feed on. However, we did get fine looks at Black-cheeked Warbler, more Collared Redstarts, Yellow-thighed Finches, and Slaty Flowerpiercers, Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, Flame-colored Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Flame-throated Warbler. We also picked up a new hummingbird for the day in the form of several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, glimpsed a Wrenthrush, saw our third nightingale thrush for the day (Black-billed), and finally got our Large-footed Finch.
By the time we saw the finch, it started to rain too much to keep watching birds so we began to drive downhill with the hope that we could evade the falling water. As luck would have it, as we drove away from Poas and towards Barva, the rains came to a brief stop and we picked up a few more choice bird species. Scanning the canopy of distant trees from an overlook turned up scoped views of Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher but our best and most unexpected species was a Bicolored Hawk! Although it stayed long enough to scope it, it didn’t stick around long enough to digiscope it, otherwise I would show you its contrasting dark cap and Cooper’s Hawkish shape.
After the hawk, the rains picked up again so we didn’t get in any more birding for the day but by that point, it was 4:30 and we had seen 88 species (4 heard onlys) for a long, satisfying day of birding the Central Valley and Poas area
This past weekend I had the privilege of guiding a client to foothill sites on Saturday and the Poas area the next. I hope to give you an idea of what that’s like in the following report:
After a last minute check to make sure I am properly equipped with birding and guiding gear, I hit the road and happily drive through dark, empty streets. The lack of traffic is relaxing and an absolute contrast to most times of the day. I see a shape fly by somewhere between Heredia and Santo Domingo and figure that it was probably a Tropical Screech Owl. I get to the Hotel Bougainvillea just before 5, meet up with my client and off we go.
After slowly descending through the wonderful forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park, we pull in to El Tapir. As expected, a male Snowcap shows shortly thereafter. We see several of these dream-like bird along with such other hummingbird species as Violet-headed Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, and Crowned Woodnymph.
The nearby rainforest is pretty quiet but we still see a few Black-faced Grosbeaks, Emerald Tanager, flyby Mealy Parrots, scope a few Brown-hooded Parrots, see Cinnamon Becard, and a few other birds. It’s so quiet, though, that when the clock says “7”, I decide that we might as well check a few sites down the road. We drive 5 minutes to a small, birder-friendly diner (known as Chicharroneria Patona) and have a drink while scanning the forest canopy on both sides of the road. That turns up a juvenile Gray Hawk, Black-mandibled Toucan, Collared Aracari, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and a few other birds including an unexpected flyby Peregrine Falcon. I also notice a flowering Inga and as hoped, a few hummingbirds are coming and going from this tree. Although coquette fails to show, we do see both male and female Green Thorntails. Since it’s quiet there too and knowing that this is my client’s only chance at Caribbean slope birds, I decide to drive down the hill and into the lowlands.
Although we can’t really access any good forest, we can and do scan rainforest canopy a few hundred yards away and bird the open areas. We pick up open country flycatchers like Gray-capped, Social, and Great Kiskadee, see a pair of flyby White-crowned parrots, hear but don’t see Orange-chinned Parakeets, and see some other edge species like Common Tody Flycatcher and Clay-colored Thrush. Just as we are beginning to drive off, serendipity strikes as I spot a trio of large birds flying towards us. A moment later, I realize my hunch was correct and we watch a pair of Great Green Macaws and their offspring fly overhead! They made nary a sound and seemed out of place as they flew over a busy bus station and roadside restaurants (or perhaps those, and not the macaws, were our of place).
We then head back up hill to the Patona Diner to check the flowering Inga once again along with the forest canopy. No such luck with Crimson-collared Tanager or other targets so we head on up to Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station now that it’s officially open. After paying the entrance fee, we see a student group head start walking the loop trail so we cross the highway and start walking the Ceiba trail instead. Overall, things are pretty quiet (not too much of a surprise since the most active time in the forest is from 6 to 8 in the morning) but we do see Dull-mantled Antbird, Broad-billed Motmot, and run into a bit of a mixed flock that mostly stays in the canopy. It has Black and Yellow Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and a few other good birds.
Checking the streams doesn’t turn up anything more than Buff-rumped Warbler but as we move on, we get good looks at Streak-crowned Antvireo and Checker-throated Antwren.
The overlook appears to be promising as always and we actually spot a couple non vulture raptors far off above a ridge but they just don’t come close enough for identification. One of them was either a Short-tailed Hawk or a rare Black and White Hawk Eagle but it never came close enough to say for sure!
Continuing on, we head down the trail all the way to a stream crossing on the lower part. The trail is kind of rocky on the way down but if you hit a mixed flock here, you might get excellent looks at some canopy birds. We didn’t but did see Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, brief looks at Tawny-crested Tanager and a few other species. On the way out, we got looks at one of the many Pale-vented Thrushes in the forest but not much else. We then checked the sky for King Vulture sans success and saw a hawk-eagle species in the process but as soon as I glimpsed the hawk eagle, it went into a long stoop and out of sight! I’m pretty sure it was an Ornate Hawk Eagle but only saw it at a distance for a half of a second (yeah, frustrating).
It was then off to lunch at the Patona. The only downside to that small diner is the near constant sound of blasting air breaks on trucks that rumble on by. The birding can be good though, and they like watching birds so I like to support them. Lunch was good and filling and we may have seen a few other species there at that time but I don’t recall too much from the Patona at mid day. However, as usual, one of the owners told me about the birds he had seen that day. He is a birder sans binos and I need to get him some optics because he sees everything from umbrellabird to White Hawk, Sunbittern, and who knows what else.
After lunch, we headed back to Quebrada Gonzalez to do the loop trail around 1:30 in the afternoon. Yep, that’s a quiet time but we still got great looks at Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, White-bellied Wood Wren, and a few other birds including Tawny-faced Gnatwren. Mostly, we were hoping for mixed flocks and a ground bird or two but we got rained out before we could do much else. Just before the rain, hopes were raised when I heard Bicolored Antbird but it was too far off the trail to see and we didn’t see any ants. The army ants were probably far into the forest (and who knows what else was with them!). Just luck of the draw when it comes to army ants.
Fortunately, the rain didn’t last too long and we were awarded with another male Snowcap at flowering bushes and Speckled Tanager while waiting for it to stop. We ventured back into the forest a bit after three and bird activity was picking up (and got close looks at Carmiol’s Tanager and White-throated Shrike Tanager) but the calling Striped Woodhaunters just wouldn’t come close enough to see them before we had to leave to be out of the forest before closing time at 4! Yep, closed during prime birding hours thanks to bureaucracy typically trumping common sense and good service.
After checking the stream near the highway once more and seeing nothing, I decided that it would be worthwhile to check the Patona diner again. This turned out to be a good choice because we were awarded with nice looks at Scarlet-rumped Cacique, oropendolas, Green Honeycreeper, Crimson-collared Tanager, and a few other birds. The drive back was uneventful, had little traffic, and we got back to the Bougainvillea around 5. Although we had originally planned on going to Irazu the following day, after talking about it, we figured that Poas would be more productive, so that’s where we went.
I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:
After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.
We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.
Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.
A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.
Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.
Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).
Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!
We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.
It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.
Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).
The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.
Most birders on their way to Costa Rica have a list of the species they want to see the most. These are the birds that we yearn to see, that we dream about, and that capitalize the “S” in satisfaction. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit too much but anyone who likes to keep a bird list and who has traveled to watch birds knows what I’m talking about. Although the birding purists may solemnly state that every bird is equal, I, um, beg to differ and counter that equating a Resplendent Quetzal or a Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a House Wren or (egads!) a House Sparrow is is simply bonkers. You see, that would kind of be like saying that Elvis Presley was equal to your average, bowling alley karaoke fanatic.
So, if you happen to be wondering what the heck mind blasting birds, the King of Rock and Roll, and karaoke have to do with Snowcaps, not to fret, I’m getting to that. You see, the Snowcap is rather like a pint-sized (maybe pin-sized) rep. for those extravagant birds that consistently make it onto lists of Costa Rica most wanted bird species. They might not come in the weird and wild shape of an umbrellabird or have glowing feathers that change color as the bird moves along with an over-long tail like a quetzal, but they make up for it with three main characteristics:
The snow cap: Just like the name says, a male Snowcap has a snow white cap. But it’s really more than that. The white is so darn gleaming that one often sees this glowing white spot zipping around like some extra-dimensional creaturette rather than the bird itself. In fact, it just might be the closest thing to a real live Tinkerbell (except it’s a bird, can’t do magic, etc.).
The purple body: Wait, is it purple? Mauve? Burgunday? Just what the heck is that color! Whatever it is, it’s a rare hue for anything avian and makes the male look like some extraordinary sculpture. How can it be that color? Why is it that color? Whether the female sees something that evades our vision abilities or not, it makes the male Snowcap one heck of a cool bird to watch!
It’s a hummingbird: Hummingbirds are cool by default. Some of them look quite a bit like ornate feathered insects, they buzz around like teeny helicopters, and fight with other glittering hummingbirds over flowers patches. With such characteristics, I don’t know how anyone could not like hummingbirds.
Now that should give a fair idea of why the foothill dynamo known as the Snowcap is a must for many people on birding trips to Costa Rica. Unfortunately, though, there aren’t many accessible places to see them. Unlike hummingbirds that occur in middle elevation sites with many a feeder, the Snowcap is a dainty denizen of the Caribbean foothill zone. It won’t go higher than 800 meters and rarely makes it down to anywhere lower than 300 meters. Basically, this rich, limited habitat is right at the base of the mountains and perhaps due to its proximity to the flat lowlands, has been tragically razed in far too many places.
If you drive down past Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, you reach the foothill zone but what used to fantastic, wet rainforest has been converted to weedy cattle pastures. Go down most roads on the Caribbean slope and you will see the same, Snowcap-less pattern. Luckily, there are a few exceptions and these are the easiest, most accessible places to see this fantastic little bird in Costa Rica (and I dare say, elsewhere in its range):
El Tapir: Located smack in the middle of excellent foothill forest at just the right elevation, this is by far, the easiest. most accessible spot for seeing the Snowcap. Go there and you have a good chance of seeing a few males, a few females, and maybe an immature or two. Not only is this site in the right place and is surrounded by a lot of habitat, it also has a garden overflowing with Porterweed (a bush loved by the Snowcap and many other hummingbird species), and is easily accessible along the main highway between San Jose and Limon. There’s no sign, though, so watch for the first little clearing with a couple of small buildings on the right (east side of the road) about 2 kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez. The caretaker charges $5. Snowcaps also occur at Quebrada Gonzalez but they are harder to see as they feed on flowers way up there in the canopy.
Rancho Naturalista: This classic Costa Rican birding lodge is a reliable spot for the Snowcap. The guides will know which Porterweed bushes the birds have been visiting so you should see them here if you visit.
El Copal: This community owned, basic eco-lodge is located between Rancho and Tapanti. The showers may be cold but the birding is excellent and Snowcaps are usually present at their (can you guess) Porterweed bushes!
The road to Rio Celeste in Tenorio National Park: This is a fairly new road, it passes near excellent foothill forest, and I recently heard abut Snowcaps being seen there. If you don’t see any Porterweed, watch for a tiny hummingbird with white in the tail at any small flowers.
That’s about it! I’m sure there are some other sites for the Snowcap in Costa Rica but the four places listed above are the most accessible.
Costa Rica is a great place for seeing a bunch of hummingbirds. As with most places frequented by those fairy-like, feathered dynamos, a high percentage of species are fairly easy to see as long as you know where feeders and the right types of flowering plants can be found. The range of habitats accessible in a pretty small area also makes it possible to see several species in one day. By “several”, I don’t mean 5 or 6 but something along the lines of 15 to 20. Although I haven’t tried this yet, I bet you could even see even more during a day of birding in Costa Rica. Although the numbers are still going to be less than such a sugar-high endeavor in hummingbird crazy Ecuador or Colombia, it would still be fun to try.
With the focus on hummingbirds, here is one possible route for some serious hummingbird madness in Costa Rica:
Start out at the El Tapir. This defunct butterfly and hummingbird garden pulls in 7 to 8 species on a regular basis and is the most accessible spot in the country for the eye numbing Snowcap.
While the female isn’t going to cause any birding related seizures, the male just might when the sun lights up his amazing burgundy plumage offset by a brilliant white crown. In addition to the Snowcap (1), this site would also have a good chance of turning up the following species:
We would probably also get a flyby (11.) Stripe-throated Hermit before heading over to the Sarapiqui area to check Heliconia patches and flowering bushes for:
That would be our main chance for those species although the hermits could also be had at Carara.
After getting those three key targets, we make a stop at the Nature Pavilion for another chance at the plumeleteer, woodnymph, hermits, and
It would also give us a good shot at
Continuing uphill, we would make a stop at Virgen del Socorro if we still needed the coquette, Brown Violetear, and Violet-headed Hummingbird. If not, we would probably skip that to stop at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona. The stocked feeders there should be good for:
We would also have another chance at Brown Violetear and Green Thorntail.
Further up the road, we would make stops for:
It would probably also be a good idea to pay the steep entrance fee to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens to ensure Black-bellied Hummingbird and in case the feeders and flowering bushes are harboring some rarity.
The next main stop on this day of the hummingbird would be the feeders at the Restaurant Volcan. They should add:
Then, we make a short drive to higher elevations on Poas for
Somewhere along that route, we will hopefully get lucky with a Green-fronted Lancebill before reaching Poas. Then, we head over to the feeders at the Freddo Fresas restaurant to see if we can turn up a Scintillant Hummingbird for species number 30.
With a good chance at having 30 in the bag, we would head down the Pacific slope and check flowering trees in coffee farms for:
We might also get lucky with Canivet’s Emerald although we would have a chance for that bird making number 33 at our next main stop, the Guacimo Road, or some other dry forest site near Carara. That same area should also give us:
We would also have another chance at Green-breasted Mango and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird around there before hitting the mangroves to try for one of the toughest birds of the day, (36.) Mangrove Hummingbird. Although this Costa Rican endemic lives in the mangroves near Tarcoles and Bajamar, it’s pretty uncommon.
If we still need Bronzy Hermit and Band-tailed Barbthroat, we could try the Heliconias along the Laguna Meandrica trail in Carara National Park. Other than those species, our other main targets would be:
We should pick up (39.) Purple-crowned Fairy at any of the humid lowland and foothill sites,
but to hit 40, we would need some luck in getting the Mangrove Hummingbird and Canivet’s Emerald plus at least one of such rarities as White-crested Coquette or White-tipped Sicklebill. However, if we do this day during the winter, I just realized that I had left out one more species that is just about guaranteed, Ruby-throated Hummingbird. With that in mind, I guess 40 is possible if enough flowering plants are scouted out!
Always lots of birds to see in Costa Rica. The more you look, the more you see, especially when you spend time in birdy habitats. This past week, a couple of days guiding along the Poas-Cinchona-Sarapiqui turned up an expected fine variety of avian species. Since the focus was on getting video footage of birds, we had plenty of photo opportunities including the twelve birds seen below.
In the high elevation habitats on Poas, we had a fair selection of temperate zone species including Buffy Tuftedcheek, brief looks at an over shy male Resplendent Quetzal, Black Guan, and several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds among other species including…
The Volcan Restaurant is a short drive downslope from the temperate zone and an excellent place for watching hummingbirds (we had 7 species). The forest along the riparian zone at that spot can also be good although we saw little when we were there.
On Wednesday, we started the day out at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona. This site continues to be an excellent place for seeing several hummingbirds (we had 8 species) and is great for taking pictures of other birds as well. The day we were there, the cloudy weather was perfect for bird photography.
After enjoying the hummingbird extravaganza (8 species) and getting close looks at Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers, we headed down to the Nature Pavilion, one of the best sites for bird photography in Costa Rica. The lighting was excellent, there was a good amount of activity at and near the feeders, a Rufous-winged Woodpecker called and foraged in the trees behind us, and other lowland species called and flew overhead. It was a memorable morning indeed with constant photography opportunities.
The owners make sure that the feeders are filled with papaya and bananas.
After the Nature Pavilion, we made a quick stop near La Selva and got looks at a busy flock of around a dozen species including (Chestnut-colored Woodpecker) but the birds were too quick to photograph (not to mention rain and dense vegetation also posing challenges to photography). So, we headed back upslope and escaped the rain for a bit. At a roadside lagoon near San Miguel, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat came in for good photos.
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat also responded to its song but wouldn’t come close enough for a photo. However, we did manage to get looks at a much less common species.
After our stop at the lagoon, we made another quick stop near Cinchona and got looks at Silver-throated Tanagers, Speckled Tanagers, Tropical Parulas, and some other birds before the rains begen to fall in earnest. Always a lot of nice birds to watch in Costa Rica!
Poas is the name of the volcano that I can see off to the northwest of my home. It’s an obvious stand-alone mountain that is usually topped by clouds. On sunny days, though, close scrutiny of its upper reaches reveals a distinct, flat appearance. That flat part is the edge of the crater and marks the place where most people go when they visit the volcano. As for myself, I rarely go up that high but instead focus on the road up to around the gate of the national park because high elevation birds are more exciting to watch than the crater (since I am a birder and not a crater watcher or vulcanologist- a much more dangerous pastime). Since I can get up to Poas and vicinity quicker than other areas with good habitat, I bird and guide around there with some regularity. I also do an annual breeding bird count and this is nice because it forces me to head up there by 5 in the morning.
Although the afternoon birding on Poas tends to be great, that early hour does give a good idea of what’s flying around those high elevation habitats. In this case, that would be pastures with scattered, epiphyte drenched oaks, temperate zone forest, moist subtropical forest fragments mixed with non-native Guatemalan Cypress, and nice remnant cloud forest in riparian zones that are connected to larger blocks of forest. I start the count at the Volcan Restaurant, end it up near the main gates to the park and hear lots of birds in between. I also see some here and there but as with the majority of bird counts, almost everything is found by sound.
One of the most common birds is the Mountain Elaenia. I think I got more of these birds than any other species at every point.
As you can see, this is a typically nondescript flycatcher. It will remind you of an Empid but looks even less distinctive than the resident Black-capped Flycatcher. I suppose White-throated Flycatcher could also show up around Poas but I haven’t seen it there yet.
The first few stops yielded several yodeling Prong-billed Barbets and hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders at the Volcan Restaurant. While guiding there yesterday, just after saying that I had never seen a Scintillant Hummingbird at the restaurant but that they could occur, up pops a rufous-flanked, excellent candidate. After closely inspecting the bird, I called it as a young male Scintillant on account of the mostly rufous tail with narrow subterminal band, rufous flanks sans green, lack of a thin rufous line that goes from the eye to the bill, and a couple of coppery orange feathers on the gorget (which is why I called it a young male although who knows, maybe it’s a female).
One hummingbird species missed during the count but seen while guiding was a Stripe-tailed. Since this is the least common of the 7 regularly occurring species at their feeders, I was quite pleased to see it.
Other uncommon species that were recorded during the count were:
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl- Pretty rare in the area but occurs.
Resplendent Quetzal- Had one female. They are around but tough to find unless you can locate some fruiting, wild avocados.
Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- There were a few calling from the more intact forest on the higher part of the road.
Elegant Euphonia- Nice surprise as it seems to be pretty rare around there.
Yellow-bellied Siskin- As mundane as a goldfinch might seem to be, this was the rarest bird species from the count. Trapping this bird for cages has eliminated it from many parts of the mountains above the Central Valley.
Species found at nearly every stop included Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher (Poas is a great area for this sleek bird), Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Common Bush Tanager, Band-tailed Pigeon (because they seem to always be flying overhead), and Slate-throated Redstart. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush is also very common in the Poas area. I saw lots as they came out to feed on the road at dawn.
Mountain Thrushes were also coming out onto the road and flying all over the place. No pics of them because they suffer from FNS (flighty nervous syndrome). Sooty Robins don’t though, and once I got up into the temperate zone, they were taking center stage all along the road.
After losing the staring contest with this Blackbirdish (the Palearctic one) looking thrush, I saw a bunch of other high elevation birds. Bright orange mistletoe was being visited by Green Violetears, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems.
No bamboo birds this year and not as many quetzals are around but the birding is still always nice and easy around Poas.
Cameras have come a long way from the days when we worried about our film being affected by x-rays at the airport. Nowadays, while we still call them cameras, the digital photographic devices of the 21st century are on such a different level that perhaps it would be better to refer to them as Digital Image Devices or DIDs if you will. Then you could say, “Yes, I did take those 300 images with my DID”, and “Don’t forget to charge your DID before capturing crushing images of that Crested Guan in Costa Rica”.
No matter what we call our digital cameras, they sure are a wonderful leap in technology, especially when you take pictures of birds. You see, getting really good shots of birds requires dozens and even hundreds of shots of every subject because many of our feathered friends are rather hyperactive by nature and have this fondness for hanging out in places with twigs, branches, leaves, and other shutter clutter. Nor do they like to come very close to people (a trait for which we cannot blame them given our overall treatment of our natural surroundings). In ye olde days of Kodak film, you had to be extra careful of every shot you took because you couldn’t afford to waste film and zooming in was the luxury of those who could afford to pay thousands of dollars for a super-sized lens. However, in 2013, as we are all well aware, those factors have sort of become null and void. With digital photography, you can press that shutter release button just to exercise your finger if you fancy and distance keeps getting closer with higher resolutions and better zoom capabilities.
Nevertheless, you still have to go to the right place to get lots of great photos of birds and the Nature Pavilion has become one of the top places, if not the number one site in Costa Rica for bird photography. David and Dave Lando, the father and son owners of the Nature Pavilion, have made bird photography a main focus (others being environmental education, reforestation, and conservation) of their place and yes, it’s a damn fine place for bird photography!
I was very pleased to bring a client there this past Sunday because I knew he would get plenty of great shots of a variety of Costa Rican birds, and I love to scan the rainforest canopy from their deck. During a three hour visit, a quick scoping of the treetops revealed such showy species as both large toucans, Red-lored Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, Montezuma Oropendola, and Pale-billed Woodpecker. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher also called from a nearby perch and we could hear Rufous Motmot hooting from down in the woods.
As you can see, those birds were too far away for good pictures but the close ones more than made up for it. Despite May not being as ideal of a time for birds coming to fruit feeders as the months of December, January, February, and March, I would have to say that we did quite well in terms of bird photography.
White-necked Jacobin is the most abundant hummingbird.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer also showed up at the edge of the forest and there were a few Rufous-taileds and at least one Scaly-breasted around.
The fruit feeders were fairly quiet at first but eventually brought in everything from honeycreepers to Collared Aracari.
It was especially nice to get pictures of a Red-throated Ant-Tanager because these guys rarely come out into the open.
Given that all of these pictures were digiscoped, you can only imagine the pictures you get with a DSLR! It’s no wonder that lots of pro photographers are coming to the Nature Pavilion and as more of the habitat grows up, it’s only going to get better. ALSO, the Nature Pavilion rents out the spacious, beautiful house with the canopy deck for a price that rivals several of the local eco-lodges. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
One of the innumerable cool things about watching birds compared to say, mammals, is that many tend to be colorful, decorative, and downright ornate. Not that there aren’t ornate mammals too but let’s face it, the general color scheme for mammal species happens to be brown. Some bird species have even managed to get “ornate” included in their common English name. Ornate Antwren is one of them and although its plumage isn’t exactly decked out with fancy plumes, compared to other dead leaf inspecting Myrmotherula, it’s a brightly colored bird.
With its striking plumage and fancy feathered spike on top of its head, the Ornate Hawk Eagle earns its name with flair. However, there are many more ornate looking birds that don’t get that adjective included in their names than the birds that do. I saw two such ornate bird species during recent guiding in the Caribbean slope foothill forests of El Tapir.
One was right out in the open among the flowering Porterweed (Stachytarpheta sp.).
This male Black-crested Coquette entertained on two recent mornings at El Tapir. If you haven’t seen one of these gems in person, it’s like a feathered flying bug that has been decorated for a fancy little nectar party. The wispy crest makes this and other coquette species about as delicate and elegant as a bird can be.
They like to perch on bare twigs to show off those crazy plumes.
“Behold my plumes!”, says the coquette (which only hummingbirds and bats can hear because it has such a high-pitched tinkly voice).
The other sort of ornate species we saw is much larger than a coquette and hangs out on forested streams and rivers. It’s a nemesis bird for many but eventually turns up if you take enough boat rides on the Sarapiqui or check enough rocky rivers.
The pristine stream at the end of the main trail at El Tapir is a good spot for Sunbittern. It’s also a good trail for many other things but be prepared for ticks!
This fancy blend of heron, rail, and crane was pretty shy but eventually let us take pictures once it ventured out to the middle of the stream. It slowly swayed back and forth as we admired everything from its reddish eyes to the white spots on its wings and sunburst pattern in the primaries as it took flight
My, what orange legs you have!
Sunbittern, the neotropical Kagu.
The main species that people hope to see at El Tapir was also present. In fact, there were at least four Snowcaps buzzing around the flowers. I wouldn’t refer to these snowy-crowned gems as being ornate but I would venture to say that the males look like surreal birds only seen in dreams.
Crazy purple and glaring white. What’s up with that!
The female brings you back to reality with much more homely hummingbird plumage.
Nevertheless, she still strikes a coy pose now and then.