Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Some Tips for Visiting and Birding Costa Rica

The high season for tourism in Costa Rica is approaching as fast and steady as the flight of a White-collared Swift. Many hotels have already adjusted their rates and on the Pacific slope, better weather is on the way. After cloudy days and many rain-filled afternoons, the sun was shining in Santa Barbara de Heredia today. It still rained in some other parts of the Central Valley and the cloud banks hovering at the continental divide showed that the wetter season on the Caribbean slope is just kicking into gear. Nevertheless, drier days are on the way in much of the country and so are the tourists. If you are coming to Costa Rica for a good dose of wonderful neotropical birding, surfing, or adventure activities, here are a few tips from the perspective of someone who lives in the land of gallo pinto and Resplendent Quetzals:

Go see a R. Quetzal: Since I mentioned them I might as well emphasize that you should include this spectacular bird in your itinerary. If you are a birder, you probably already have but even so, it’s still worth reminding you to go and see some. Notice that I said, “some” and not “one”. This was deliberate because it reflects how accessible these amazing looking birds are in Costa Rica. They also occur in southern Mexico, are still revered in Guatemala, and frequent the cloud forests of other Central American countries but Costa Rica is arguably the easiest place to see them. Hire a guide at Monteverde, San Gerardo de Dota, Paraiso de Quetzales, or stay at El Toucanet and you are just about guaranteed to fill your binocular with the view of quetzals.birding Costa Rica

Don’t change money at the airport: I used to think this was a good place to change money. I was wrong. When you change money at the airport, they give a much lower rate than banks. Even with 3$ fee, you get a better rate when simply taking money out of ATMs. You can also do it at the bank but I don’t advise it unless you enjoy waiting in lines.

Hang out at some hummingbird feeders: Obviously on your itinerary if birding Costa Rica. If you aren’t so inclined to watch our feathered friends, spending some time at hummingbird feeders might convert you to our clan, obsession, hobby, or whatever else you would like to call watching birds at all possible moments. But seriously, check out the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde, the Hummingbird Garden along the San Ramon-La Tigra road, and the feeders at La Georgina. There’s also others here and there in the country and some charge a fair fee to experience them but keep in mind that you can usually see the same species for free at other feeders.

Sunscreen and a small umbrella: Come in the dry season and you are going to experience the sizzling rays of a much more direct and focused sun than northern climes. Don’t mess around with that bad boy; always slather on the high power sunscreen! Also, if you are traveling anywhere other than the dry northwest, expect some rain. Although a poncho works out at high elevations, I prefer a small umbrella in warmer climes.

Don’t expect to see many large mammals: Like many areas in the neotropics, megafauna doesn’t make up a big component of Costa Rican wildlife. While it is true that you could always get lucky and see a Jaguar, Puma, or Tapir, don’t count on it. However, you can expect to see monkeys, sloths, dinosaurish iguanas, Scarlet Macaws, trogons, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and lots of other cool birds!

Watch where you step and don’t leave the trail: While getting bit by a snake is highly unlikely, there’s no point in taking any chances. The Fer-de Lance is a big, common viper whose venom will digest your flesh. They are camouflaged sit and wait predators. This means that they are both hard to see and easy to step on if you can’t see the ground and always lose at poker. As unlikely as an encounter is with them and other snakes, don’t chance it. Never walk where you can’t see your feet and always watch where you step. Also, don’t grab any branches or other vegetation in humid areas because there are other camouflaged vipers that sit and wait there too. I guess you shouldn’t swing on vines in the forest and fall to the ground either. Some poor guy did that in Carara this past year and fell straight onto a large Fer-de-Lance. He was bit and died that same day (although he may have had heart problems that contributed to his demise).

Drive defensively: If driving, you will quickly discover that a lot of people don’t operate their vehicles in a very safe manner, that the conditions of some roads require a fair amount of swerving to avoid pot holes, motorcycles do whatever they want at any time, and that slow-going boxy trucks are a royal pain in the “?$%. Just be extra careful and know that just because a turn signal is on doesn’t mean that the person is going to turn and vice-versa. To be fair, there are also a lot of good drivers who make their intentions known and are courteous about letting other cars turn or join their lane of constant traffic. They do this by flashing their lights.

Don’t speed: Be careful and follow speed limits even when other drivers don’t. The police love to use radar guns at speed traps and this is usually where the limit goes from 80kph down to 60kph. There may or may not be a sign but it will be painted on the road itself.

Never, ever park the car in an unguarded situation: Do this and someone is sure to break in and steal something. Luckily, there are lots of guarded parking lots. Personally, I like to park the car where I can always see it.

Be patient with the birds: Birding in areas of high biodiversity comes at a price. There might be lots of bird species but many require specialized habitats, most have large territories, and quite a few are naturally shy. You can walk into excellent forest one day and see 30 species, then see 40 more species the following day in the same area.  Be patient, check every little movement and sound, and the cool denizens of the rainforest will show up.

    Hire a guide: If you want to see more when birding Costa Rica, hire a guide who knows how to identify birds by sight and sound, and where to find them. Although the complexities of neotropical birding make it an endeavor that brims with surprises on a daily basis and is subject to a fair degree of probability, going with a guide will up the odds of seeing more birds when watching them in Costa Rica.

    Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

    A Brief Guide to Birding around Montezuma, Costa Rica

    Montezuma always makes me think of Mexico but there is another one much closer to home (at least for me). This is the seaside village of Montezuma located on the southern part of the Nicoya peninsula. If any birders make it there, it’s usually by accident or with a non-birding tour group set on checking out this “smoky” backpacker haven. There are good reasons for Montezuma not making it onto the regular circuit when birding Costa Rica. If you don’t bounce and four wheel drive your way from more established towns to the north, you have to take a ferry across the gulf of Nicoya. Although this can actually be quite interesting for birds, it eats up valuable time like a starving Wood Stork in a fish pond.

    Although, like many areas of Costa Rica, Montezuma and surroundings can be nice for birding, most people who visit the country have just two or three weeks to work with and feel that their time is better spent in places like Tortuguero, the Osa peninsula, and Cerro de la Muerte. I would have to agree so there’s a fair chance that you won’t make it over to Montezuma. However, if non-birding family or chance brings you to this surf/backpacker touristy village, read on to see what awaits in terms of getting there and birds.

    1. Puntarenas: The town of Puntarenas is built on a sandspit so it has a naturally elongated shape. If driving there, be aware that the signs indicating the entrance to Puntarenas can be 100% misleading. Use your GPS and/or common sense and you will eventually arrive but be very wary of the signs or you could start driving back towards San Jose. I speak from recent experience and kid you not! As tempting as it is to speed into town, don’t do it or you will be rewarded with a nasty ticket (and rightly so because there’s a lot of bikes and pedestrians on the streets). As for the birds, you might find a spot or two to check out mudflats and mangroves to the north of town.

    2. The Ferry: There’s more ferrys nowadays so if you are driving, you probably won’t have to wait for hours in line like you used to. If using the most mundane of transportation, walk on over to the Musmanni bakery to buy your boarding tickets (less than $2 this past weekend), head to the top of the boat, claim a shady spot,and start scanning the water. Not many people bird this area on a regular basis so who knows what will show up? Although most birds will be expected species don’t discount the possibility of some rare waterbird making an appearance! I have seen some good stuff on each of the few trips I have done from Puntarenas to Paquera (the dock on the other side). Parasitic Jaeger, Least Storm Petrel, and Sooty Shearwater have all made appearances. On the most recent trip, an uncommon young Blue-footed Booby flew into view. We also had Franklin’s Gulls, Royal, Common, Black, and Sandwich Terns, Brown Booby, a sea turtle, and lots of jumping fish. On the way back to Puntarenas, the sea was so calm that it was downright surreal. Scanning with binos revealed patches of jumping fish far out on the water and scattered flocks of Black Terns as far as we could see!

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    There’s birds out there in them there waters (yee haw!).

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    Docking at Paquera.

    3. Paquera to Tambor: After leaving Paquera, you drive past some promising looking riparian zones with big, old trees. I didn’t have time to bird there but it would be worth a stop. The edges of mangroves would also be worth checking.

    4. Tambor: This tiny place is better known for the big Barcelo hotel that destroyed a bunch of mangroves far more valuable than the town itself.  To be fair, though, Barcelo has funded Scarlet Macaw recovery efforts in the area and planted a bunch of trees. The best birding is in the fields and mangroves just east of the village. From a mini-plaza at the east end of the village, walk in along old roads meant for a development that never happened until you reach trails that go near the mangroves. Spish and toot like a pygmy owl and you might see Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Cuckoo, and even Mangrove Hummingbird (!). Lots of other cool birds in there too.

    5. Curu National Wildlife Refuge: Somewhere along the way, watch for signs that lead to this birding site. Double-striped Thick Knee occurs in fields on the entrance road, there are semi-wild Spider Monkeys that may attack your car (I’m not exaggerating!), and trails that access mangroves and dry forest.

    6. Tambor-Montezuma: After Tambor, you will drive into a larger town called, “Cabuya” (I think that’s its name). From there on to Montezuma, the road is dirt and adorned with pot holes. At one point, you will see signs for Montezuma that want you to go to the right. This will take you there but it’s closer and quicker to just go straight ahead. However, no matter which route you take into the village, go to the right, go past the cemetery and start birding. We did that on Saturday and were immediately rewarded with Plain-breasted Ground-Dove! For me, this was quite the serendipitous find because it was new for both the year and my Costa Rica list!  We also had American Kestrel there (uncommon in Costa Rica), and thick-knees called from the field at night. I bet other uncommon stuff could show up. Further on, the road passes by fields, riparian zones, and eventually descends to Montezuma. You might also get Plain Chachalaca in this area and Three-wattled Bellbirds from December to April.

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    Plain-breasted Ground Dove!

    7.Montezuma: While the village isn’t ideal for birding, the coast has lots of rocky outcroppings, tidal pools, and a chance at Wandering Tattler. Although I only saw Ruddy Turnstones, Whimbrel, and Spotted Sandpipers, it does look ideal for the tattler and Surfbirds. Scanning the ocean here might also turn up some wayward pelagic- you never know! Watch for the magpie jays that look for handouts on the streets.

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    The Ruddy Turnstone looks down at the crab in disdain…

    8. Cabo Blanco: I have never gone there so everything I write for this little section is hearsay but I bet it’s pretty good for birding. There is a good amount of forest, it is protected, and it’s pretty darn hot. You can’t really drive there so expect a long, hot trudge to bird Cabo Blanco.

    Birds in the areas mentioned: Ok, so now for the most interesting part! While much of the area is deforested, there are patches of habitat, places that are growing back into forest, and riparian zones that support quite a few species. Any remnant wetlands and lagoons should be checked for things like Pinnated Bittern, Masked Duck, and other uncommon species. Not that I have seen those there but there’s a fair chance they occur if you find the right habitat. This part of the Nicoya peninsula is more humid than areas further north and demonstrates it with species such as Collared Aracari and Red-lored Parrot.

    We actually did most of our birding around the Finca los Caballos Hotel and this is probably representative of      much of the surrounding area. Long-tailed Manakins were especially common.

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    Long-tailed Manakin- Costa Rica’s faux Bird of Paradise.

    We had 8 species of hummingbirds sans feeders!

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    Green-breasted Mango is the most common hummingbird species near Montezuma.

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    Long-billed Starthroat isn’t supposed to be there according to the range maps.

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    This psycho looking White-fronted Parrot landed right next to the hotel deck.

    Brown-crested Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Elaenia perked up when I called like a pygmy owl.

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    The Elaenia.

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    The Myiarchus.

    Some other interesting species included Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, Northern barred and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Peregrine Falcon, Barred Antshrike, Plain Wren, American Coot (sorry, but it’s uncommon in Costa Rica!), Olive Sparrow, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Blue-throated Goldentail, and Greenish Elaenia. Although many of the species are common and widespread, the open nature of the habitat made for great looks at most and excellent bird photography opportunities. Check out the newly formed birding club Picasa album for more pics! Many thanks to Dewald Reiner for taking great photos and setting that up.

    Bird pics:
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    What to Do When Birding in the Rain in Costa Rica

    October is part of the official rainy season in Costa Rica. Each year, low pressure systems get together to stew up a massive dumping of water upon Costa Rica and other parts of Central America. The results often include landslides, flooding (albeit typically in floodplains), and lower temperatures. On a side note, I should add that much of the Caribbean slope is spared these 72 hour or more deluges from the sky. The sun still reigns during the morning hours over on the other side of the mountains and that’s where you should go when birding Costa Rica in October.

    I was recently made aware of this wise piece of advice over the past weekend. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and test preparation fame came down for a short visit and I was happy to show him around. During the trip planning stage, I had mentioned that rain might be an issue but also that the near future was looking bright and so we didn’t expect too many weather-related problems. After all, the sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms of September and the first week of October were downright pleasant and predictable. It looked as if Mike could come on down, we could sweep up on regional endemics, and generally have a good, solid dose of non-stop, exciting birding. When you are optimistic, these sort of things run through your mind because you want them to come true. The only hitch is that they don’t necessarily reflect how things are going to turn out.

    This past weekend, the rains were triumphant in the imaginary battle between optimism and weather conditions. The more I wished for sun, the harder it rained but in keeping with the determined, undaunted nature of the Zen-birding tradition (I don’t know what that really means but it sure sounds good), we failed to surrender arms! Ha! Even after Mike’s plane was delayed for more than 800 minutes (according to, we surged on down to Carara shortly after his arrival. When we reached the second tool booth, we found out that the rains had thrown a landslide into our path to keep us from reaching Carara. No problem! We turned straight around and wove our way through the pot-holed maze of Central Valley streets to head up into the mountains. About 10 minutes past Alajuela, we were stopped by another road closure, this one related to the repair of downed power lines. No problem! The car was stopped and there was green space so we started birding. Spishing and pygmy-owl toots called a few species out of the woodwork and Mike got his second regional endemic in the form of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (Crimson-fronted Parakeet was the first).

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    Not the Hoffmann’s we saw but I can assure that it looked just like this one.

    No new birds popped up so we consulted the trusty GPS navigator and took another route towards Poas Volcano. It didn’t take long, though, for us to be confronted with a true, honest to goodness landslide.

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    This is why motorbikes are popular in rural areas of Costa Rica.

    Mist saturated the entire area (and hid a calling Flame-colored Tanager) so we took another route up the volcano. This time, we were successful in reaching a place where we could watch birds without getting soaked. Known as the “El Volcan” restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a tasty, home-cooked lunch accompanied by a nice selection of cloud forest hummingbirds. Despite the wet weather, we quickly tallied 7 species of hummingbirds.

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    These included several Purple-throated Mountain-gems,

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    a few Volcano Hummingbirds,

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    and Violet Sabrewings.

    Slaty Flowerpiercers also moved through the restaurant garden on one of their constant nectar filching missions, and forest on the other side of the street hosted Yellow-thighed Finches, Wilson’s Warblers, Red-faced Spinetail, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and other birds adapted to cool, misty, 2,000 meter climes. The restaurant was nice and dry but how could we stay when there were other birds to be seen higher up the road? We drove uphill and made occasional stops to search for birds. The constant, saturating mist and rain attempted to drown out my pygmy-owl imitation but I still managed to attract that hefty-billed beauty known as a Black-thighed Grosbeak. Golden-browed Chlorophonias also softly called from the canopy but refused to reveal themselves. As much as I attempted to ignore the rain while looking at Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Large-footed Finch, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, I couldn’t help but admit that the experience was akin to watching birds while taking a  cold shower. A quetzal might have given us enough internal birding power to stave off any and all discomfort but since none showed up, we headed back downhill and made our way to the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.

    In conclusion, if you must go birding in Costa Rica during October, stick to the Caribbean slope because it’s drier there at this time of year. If circumstances or location make it impossible to avoid the rain, you can always go to the El Volcan Restaurant and watch the hummingbird action. Other highland species will also show up without being accompanied by a supposedly invigorating, warmth-sapping natural cold shower.  You could also immerse yourself into sudoku but that will keep you from seeing birds so leave those numeric puzzles at home or on the plane and just keep looking for birds!

    The El Volcan restaurant is situated past Poasito, on the road up to Poas Volcano. Look for it on the left or west side of the road. It looks like this:

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    biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Hummingbirds middle elevations

    Birding El Toucanet Lodge, Costa Rica

    Two weekends ago, I finally got the chance to experience El Toucanet Lodge near Copey de Dota, Costa Rica. This highland birding site has popped up on the Costa Rican birding grapevine on a number of occasions so I was enthused about birding there while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. I have guided a number of birders who have enthralled me with tales of El Toucanet’s exciting hummingbird action, easy views of quetzals, great food, and quality hospitality. After staying there, I echo their sentiments and definitely recommend the place when birding the Talamancas.

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    The majority of birders get their fill of high elevation birding in Costa Rica at Savegre Mountain Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota. Since the oak forests there are more accessible than at El Toucanet, you can’t go wrong with birding at Savegre Mountain Lodge, but it’s also more expensive. For a more moderately priced option, El Toucanet is $30 cheaper per night on average and is situated at a lower elevation with drier forest that turns up an interesting suite of species. In addition to good birding around the hotel, birders who come with a rental vehicle will find it to be a good site to use as a base for birding higher elevations.

    At the lodge itself, two hummingbird feeders were enough to entertain us with views of the following species:

    Violet Sabrewing

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    Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

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    Green Violetear

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    Magenta-throated Woodstar

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    Scintillant Hummingbird

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    Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

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    and the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

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    There were also camera shy Green-crowned Brilliants, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and in flowering Ingas on the property, a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds. White-throated Mountain-Gems, and Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds seen at higher elevations gave us a respectable total of thirteen hummingbirds species seen during our stay.

    On the non-hummingbird side of page, some of the highlights at the lodge and in nearby, similar habitats were Dark Pewee (common), Barred Becard (fairly common), Spotted Wood-Quail (heard only although they sometimes show up at the lodge), Collared Trogon, Black and white Becard (very uncommon species in Costa Rica), and Rough-legged Tyrannulet. Much to my chagrin, this last bird was also a heard only as it would have been a lifer! I tried calling it in but the bird just wouldn’t come close enough to see it- all the more reason to head back up there!

    Flame-colored Tanagers were fairly common and came to the lodge feeders once in a while

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    but the lodge namesake seemed to be pretty uncommon. We still saw a few Emerald Toucanets but not as many as I had expected; maybe they are more common at other times of the year or are down in numbers like the Resplendent Quetzal. As with other areas in Costa Rica, the wacky fruiting season seems to have had an impact upon quetzal numbers so it took us a few days to actually see one. This is in contrast to the norm at El Tocuanet whereby guests often view more than one of these fancy birds on the daily quetzal tour (free for guests).

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    A Resplendent Quetzal near El Toucanet being resplendent.

    One of our best birdies during our visit was Silver-throated Jay. This tough endemic needs primary highland oak forest and, at El Tocuanet, is only regularly found at higher elevations where the road to Providencia flattens out. It was nice to get this rarity for the year even if it was a pain to get clear views of it in the densely foliaged crowns of massive, moss-draped oaks. That same area also hosted three or four calling, unseen Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, the aforementioned high elevation hummingbirds, and a mixed flock highlighted by Buffy Tuftedcheeks. We also had our weirdest bird of the trip in that area- a Magnificent Frigatebird! If it wanted to masquerade as an American Swallow-tailed Kite, those raptors weren’t buying it and demonstrated their discontent by dive-bombing the modern day Pterodactyl.

    We also had calling quetzals around there, and at night, heard Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. During our after dark excursion, we tried for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet but didn’t get any response. Maybe it occurs at higher elevations? Maybe it just doesn’t like birders? No matter because I am going to get that feathered gnome before 2011 comes to an end!

    Our final morning was when we got the quetzal (thanks to the owners son Kenny who whistled it in) in addition to being our best morning of birding. Streak-breasted Treehunter hung out at a nesting hole (burrow) in a quarry. Barred Becard and bathing Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers entertained in the same area. Tufted Flycatchers, migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Dark Pewee were sallying off perches like jumping jack flash, and Yellow-bellied Siskins did what all birds should do-

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    sing from exposed, eye level perches for long periods of time at close distances. Challenges are OK but relaxed, easy birding is always better!

    One drawback to birding near El Toucanet is that hunting still occurs in the area. We didn’t see any guys with guns or floppy eared, baying dogs, but we were told that locals do hunt in the Los Santos Forest Reserve (illegally). I suspected as much because of the flighty behavior of birds in the area (except at El Toucanet where they know they are safe). Even so, aside from making it a bit more challenging to watch birds close up, I doubt that it affects the birding all that much. Black Guans are probably more difficult to see but you may still have a good chance for them when birding the long road through Providencia and the highway. Much of this underbirded road cuts through beautiful forest. If you have the time and vehicle, please bird it and let us know what you see! I plan on surveying the road sometime this year and will blog about it.

    In the meantime, check out El Toucanet! I bet the area around the lodge holds more surprises, the fireplace is certifiably cozy, the food very good, and the owners as nice as can be.

    Here was a very cool surprise that I ran into just next to the lodge- my lifer Godson’s Montane Pit-Viper!

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    Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

    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).

    Birding Costa Rica central valley middle elevations preparing for your trip

    Tapanti National Park is always worth a visit when birding Costa Rica

    With so many excellent possibilities to choose from when birding Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide upon an itinerary. “Classic” sites like Sarapiqui, Monteverde, the Dota Valley, and Carara tempt with easy access, good infrastructure, and mouth watering trip reports. The biologically hyperactive Osa Peninsula, tall forests of Tortuguero, and monkey rich Santa Rosa National Park beckon to birders looking for a wilderness experience. Adventurous birders and naturephiles will be impressed with the fantastic birding and high diversity at sites located off the radar such as Heliconias Lodge, Hitoy Cerere, and Manzanillo.

    No matter where you decide to focus birding time and energy when visiting Costa Rica, make room in the schedule for Tapanti National Park. At least a day but two or three would be even better. My reasons for getting excited about birding Tapanti and surroundings are probably why most birding tour companies include a visit to the lush forests of this middle elevation site:

    1. There are few other places in Costa Rica where you have a fair chance at seeing the likes of: White-bellied      Mountain-Gem, Green-fronted Lancebill, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scaled Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (good candidate for splitting from South American taxa), Black-banded Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Streaked Xenops, Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Lesser Elaenia, White-fronted Tyrannulet, Dark Pewee, Sharpbill, and White-winged Tanager.
    2. You also have a fair chance of seeing target species such as: Black Guan, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Violet Sabrewing, Green Thorntail, Red-headed Barbet, Prong-billed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, American Dipper, Azure-hooded Jay, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager,  Ochraceous Wren, and Elegant Euphonia.
    3. The park is easily accessible and there are various options for lodging within a twenty minute drive.
    4. Most of the birds can be seen along a wide, easily walked road through the park or along an easy, loop trail.
    5. Situated 2 kilometers from the park entrance, Kiri Lodge is a good place for lunch and has excellent bird feeding tables.

    On a day trip to the park last weekend, my birder friend Susan and I didn’t come close to getting all of the above but we still had a great day of birding in beautiful surroundings. Here is a quick run-down of our day:

    Susan picks me up in Santa Barbara de Heredia at 5 a.m. and off we go through the streets of the Central Valley on our way to Tapanti! Light traffic at dawn is a serious boon but twisting, winding roads and occasional lights and signs that tell us to stop make it an hour and a half drive. We both agree that we should have left at 4.

    Scenery doesn’t become truly beckoning or beautiful until we decend into the Orosi Valley, take in huge draughts of fresh, country air, and listen to the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Black Phoebes, Brown Jays, Plain Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Yellow-faced Grasquits, and other birds that chip, sing, and call from surrounding coffee plantations.

    Nearing the park, we stop at an inviting spot along the road with a brushy field on one side and a lush forest on the other.

    birding Costa Rica

    Hoping for migrants, I start up with the spishing as soon as I step out of the car and a few birds show up- three Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Wilsons Warblers, a couple of Tennessees, and one smart looking male Golden-winged Warbler. They are just as likely to have have arrived for the winter as they are migrants stopping for a “coffee break” on their way to more southerly haunts.

    I was hoping that the brushy field would turn up a Lesser Elaenia or White-throated Flycatcher but Black Phoebe, Yellow-faced Grasquit, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat were the only birds that made an appearance. Nevertheless, it was a perfect place to just stand still, watch the sun begin to chase away the shadows, and listen to the dawn chorus. Birds in Costa Rica don’t sing as much during October but I still heard Bright-rumped Atilla, Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Brown Jays, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Immaculate Antbird, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush.

    birding Costa Rica

    This is the latter half of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

    We continue past non-birdy sun coffee and stop just outside the park entrance where forest finally greets us on both sides of the road. This area is always productive and Saturday was no exception with Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers trooping through the treetops, Black-faced Solitaire and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush popping into view, and Tawny-capped Euphonias feeding on a branch that hung over the road.

    birding Costa Rica

    At 8 a.m. (opening time for the park), we went to the park entrance and the friendly ranger urged us to check out their exhibit of road killed animals. I stress “road killed animals” as opposed to “road kill” because the animals were stuffed and on display as opposed to being shown in sad, squashed, and mangled positions (although they had some gruesome pictures of this too). In their hope to educate visitors about biodiversity in the area and the hazards local fauna face on the roads, they showed a Tapir

    birding Costa Rica

    a Puma,

    birding Costa Rica

    and an Ocelot!

    birding Costa Rica

    Cases of ridiculous looking insects were also on display.

    birding Costa Rica

    birding Costa Rica

    Just outside the ranger station, we ran into a nice flock of birds and got close looks at Red-headed and Prong-billed Barbets, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Brown-capped Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned, Rufous-capped, Black and White, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Elegant Euphonia, and more Common Bush Tanagers. Not with the flock but in the same area were Stripe-throated Hermit, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied Hummingbird.

    I was also hearing Golden-bellied Flycatcher and Dark Pewee at this time but they stayed out of sight.

    As we were on a mild-mannered mission to see antpittas, we drove up the road to the oddly named Oropendola Trail (because you don’t usually see them there) and crept down towards the river with the hopes that a Scaled Antpitta would bound into view. Just as we made a silent, ninja-like approach  to a suitable, wet-looking spot that looked like home for an antpitta, a park worker came happily bounding down the trail instead and foiled our plan. Ahh, but a trick was up our sleeve (actually in my backpack) and it came in the form of a Scaled Antpitta recording. I played the odd bubbling sound of this skulking king but despite our careful scanning of the undergrowth absolutely nothing was seen so we conceded defeat and moved on. The rest of the Oropendola Trail was quiet but we managed to pick up Slaty Antwren and got nice looks at Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant (it wasn’t nice enough to keep still for a photo).

    Both feeling fit enough to scale the steep trail known as the “Arboles Caidos” (means “Fallen Trees” but should be called “Personas Caidos” (Fallen People) because of its gradient), we slowly walked up and into the old growth, crazily mossed cloud forests found along this trail. Our target here was the Ochre-breasted Antpitta. It has been seen on both trails at Tapanti but is espied more often on the Arboles Caidos. Lots of other good birds are also possible but the going sure is tough! Fortunately, you are more likely to see Black-banded Woodcreeper, antpittas, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush if you move along at a slow pace and do lots of sitting around and waiting (nearly required anyways if you haven’t been training for triathalons).

    birding Costa Rica

    A rough trail through the best of habitats.

    I managed to get photos of Sooty-faced Finch but we saw few other birds (including of course the other antpitta) although I shouldn’t be surprised because in being there during the mid-morning, we were absurdly looking for birds at the quietest time of the day AND only spent an hour at most on the trail.

    birding Costa Rica

    Sooty-faced Finch- a regional endemic you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica.

    Back down to the car, we made our way to Kiri Lodge just outside of the park and ate fried chicken while watching the awesome action on their feeding table. Check my other post about that avian eye candy experience!

    Still hoping for a hefty mixed flock, after lunch, we headed back into the park and stopped whenever we heard birds. A female Collared Trogon was turned up, more looks at Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush that were feeding with tiny Labidus sp. army ants, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and yes, we got a couple of mixed flocks.

    The action was fast and furious (and who knows what was missed) but we got onto some good ones such as Streak-breasted Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, Barred Becard, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and Streaked Xenops.

    Not long after, it began to rain and we started the trek back up into the concrete, paucity of trees, and “civilization” of the Central Valley after a much needed breath of fresh air and birds at Tapanti National Park.

    Bird list from our day trip on October 23rd, 2010

    Black Vulture a few
    Turkey Vulture a few
    Osprey (they like to hang out at the Kiri Lodge trout ponds) 2
    Broad-winged Hawk 1
    American Kestrel (my first for the year!) 1
    Spotted Sandpiper 1
    Red-billed Pigeon several
    Crimson-fronted Parakeet 6
    Brown-hooded Parrot 4
    Green Hermit 4
    Stripe-throated Hermit 1
    Purple-crowned Fairy 1
    White-bellied Mountain-Gem several
    Black-bellied Hummingbird several
    Green-crowned Brilliant 1
    Rufous-tailed Hummingbird 1
    White-collared Swift several
    Red-headed Barbet 4 inside the park, 2 at the Kiri tables
    Prong-billed Barbet 4 inside the park
    Collared Trogon 1
    Smoky-brown Woodpecker 1 heard
    Wedge-billed Woodcreeper several
    Spotted Woodcreeper 1
    Tawny-throated Leaftosser 1 heard
    Streak-breasted Treehunter 1
    Lineated Foliage-gleaner 1
    Spotted Barbtail several
    Red-faced Spinetail several
    Rufous-breasted Antthrush 1 heard
    Immaculate Antbird 2 heard
    Slaty Antwren 2
    Silvery-fronted Tapaculo 1 heard
    Golden-bellied Flycatcher 2 heard
    Boat-billed Flycatcher 1 heard
    Dark Pewee 1 heard
    Black Phoebe 4
    Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant several
    Slaty-capped Flycatcher 3
    White-ruffed Manakin a few Heard
    Barred Becard 1
    Blue and white Swallow several
    Black-faced Solitaire several
    Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush several
    Swainsons Thrush several
    Clay-colored Thrush several
    Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher several
    Brown-capped Vireo 1
    Brown Jay 5
    House Wren 2
    Ochraceous Wren 3
    Band-backed Wren 1
    White-breasted Wood Wren 1 heard
    Gray-breasted Wood Wren several Heard
    Gray-crowned Yellowthroat 2
    Rufous-capped Warbler 6
    Three-striped Warbler 4
    Golden-crowned Warbler several
    Black and white Warbler 4
    Black-throated Green Warbler 1
    Tennesee Warbler 4
    Chestnut-sided Warbler several
    Golden-winged Warbler 1
    Bananaquit 2
    Common Bush Tanager several
    Blue gray Tanager 2
    Palm Tanager 2
    Spangle-cheeked Tanager several
    Silver-throated Tanager several
    Golden-hooded Tanager 1
    Summer Tanager 1
    Sooty-faced Finch 1
    Chestnut-capped Brush Finch 1 heard
    Yellow-faced Grasquit several
    Tawny-capped Euphonia several
    Golden-browed Chlorophonia several
    Elegant Euphonia 4
    Baltimore Oriole 4
    Black-cowled Oriole 1
    Melodious Blackbird 2
    Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds preparing for your trip

    The El Tapir Hummingbird Hotspot has Been Destroyed

    Update about El Tapir- Since I wrote this post, happily, the Porterweed bushes have grown back and the place is still great for Snowcap and other hummingbird species. When I wrote this. it didn’t seem likely because every bit of green in the garden looked herbicided, brown, and dead. Current entrance fee is $12 and also includes use of the trails. The forest is excellent foothill birding but be careful about the high number of small ticks on the trails.

    El Tapir was this fantastic birding site in Costa Rica that mysteriously became defunct about ten years ago. Situated a few kilometers after Quebrada Gonzalez along the highway that connects San Jose and Limon, it provided access to foothill forests that buffer Braulio Carrillo National Park. There were a couple of trails into this beautiful, mossy habitat, one of which led to a stream where you could see Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

    On the way to the stream, there were amazing mixed flocks, Dull-mantled Antbird, and all the other foothill specialties. I also saw my best antswarm in Costa Rica along that trail- although the ground-cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpittas had apparently taken the day off or were competing with each other in a skulking contest,  everything else was there. By everything, I mean Barred Forest-Falcon, Rufous Motmot, Striped Woodhaunter, Song Wren, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and those stars of the show: Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, and the fastidiously clean Immaculate Antbird. At one time, this latter species was known as Zeledon’s Antbird. That’s the name I learned in the decades old Irby Davis field guide for Central America and I kind of wish that name would come back because it has such a ring to it- rather like the name of a rapper or a a foe of Conan the Barbarian.

    “Who’s that imposing, musclebound, hooded guy with the blue paint around his eyes?” asks one of Conan’s temporary sidekicks.

    To which Conan replied, “Crom! That be my foe ZELEDON! The prophets say that one day a feathered one that follows army ants will be named after him.”

    “Huh?!” (it was some centuries or ages before the idea of birding for fun was invented)

    “Oh never mind. The prophets are always spouting nonsense anyways- saying things like one day people will watch birds through magic eye pieces. If I weren’t a barbarian, I would laugh in a hearty, good-natured manner at such a silly idea instead of doing my usual hoarse, hacking guffaws heavy with the effects of mead. Enough! Time to challenge ZELEDON!….”

    Anyways, El Tapir was one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica and it probably still is but the nets of the butterfly garden have fallen into mold-patched disarray, the buildings are empty and probably home to hordes of scorpions, and the trails probably aren’t trails anymore. Cabins were also being built but were never completed. If they would have been finished, I tell you this would have ranked among the best accommodations for birding in Costa Rica. I have no idea what happened but suspect that it had something to do with that evil and insane affliction of governments called bureaucracy or that the money ran out.

    So the El Tapir began to resemble some haunted place in the tropics that had started out as a bastion of hope and sunshine until the decay of the jungle slowly worked its natural, nefarious magic via the vectors of disease, itchy fungus, and eventual madness until the survivors ran for their lives…BUT the bold and courageous hummingbirds carried on (well, they were always there but someone has to play the hero in this story and because barbarians aren’t allowed to be heroes, hummingbirds are the chosen ones)!

    Formerly trimmed patches of Porterweed exploded with flowers and took over the abandoned gardens and grounds. For hummingbirds, this was nothing short of trick or treating in rich neighborhoods while Halloween just repeats itself day after day after day.

    Green Thorntail birding Costa Rica

    Green Thorntails buzzed around like a swarm of bees.

    Snowcap birding Costa Rica

    Snowcaps set up shop.

    Violet-headed Hummingbird birding Costa Rica

    Violet-headed Hummingbirds moved into the neighborhood.

    The place became a veritable supermarket for the Colibridae, a metropolis for small nectar feeding creatures, and a jackpot for hundreds of birders who have popped in to get their lifer Snowcap or take photos.

    HOWEVER, all of that changed sometime during the past two weeks.

    During a day of birding Quebrada Gonzalez with Michael Retter and Alan Knue (they were down in Costa Rica for two weeks of scouting out bird sites for tours and getting Talamancan lifers), we scooted over to El Tapir to get more looks at Snowcaps (you can never get enough of that bird) and maybe glimpse a Black-crested Coquette when we came upon a strange sight.

    The overgrown hummingbird hotspot looked oddly clear and upon closer examination, all of the Porterweed bushes appeared to be dying! Aside from a Green Hermit that happily zipped around from heliconia to heliconia, there were no other hummingbirds! It was a good thing that Michael and Alan had seen loads of Snowcaps two weeks before because on Saturday, there was almost nothing. Nary a Snowcap. Not even a Rufous-tailed. None. Nada. Zilch.

    We could only surmise that whomever was taking care of the place had finally decided to eliminate the flowering bushes that were so delectable to dozens of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds will hopefully find food elsewhere but birders hoping for a quick and easy Snowcap at El Tapir will from now on be out of luck.

    Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

    Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

    Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

    Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

    The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

    “Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

    “Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

    “Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

    “Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

    Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

    A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

    It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

    Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

    The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

    Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

    The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

    As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

    Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

    Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

    With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

    Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

    The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.

    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!

    Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations sites for day trips

    Costa Rica birding near San Ramon

    San Ramon is a small city on the western edge of the central valley in Costa Rica. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer for birding in Costa Rica but some nearby areas have a lot of potential. Although I know of a few local birders who visit the cloud forests and middle elevation rainforests near San Ramon, since I have never seen this area mentioned in a trip report, I suspect that it isn’t on most people’s birding agenda.

    This is probably due to the sites being located off the regularly beaten path when birding Costa Rica. However, after some recent exploration near San Ramon, I think that every birder should make some time for birding this area, especially if they are on their way to Arenal.

    Since the closing of the Cinchona road (nope, not fixed yet and don’t expect that anytime soon), there are three main routes that people usually take to get to Arenal from San Jose. The most popular route is the road that passes through Grecia and Zarcero before crossing over to the Caribbean Slope and reaching Ciudad Quesada. This route is probably the quickest but it’s also the least birdy.

    The most adventurous route is the road that passes through Bajos del Toro. This steep road goes through some nice cloud forest and isn’t very busy but I will post about that some other time.

    The third route (and the one that this post does deal with) is highway 141 that leaves San Ramon and passes through Los Angeles (the Costa Rican version is vastly different from the American one) on its way to La Fortuna. In fact, even if you didn’t want to stop for birds on your way to Arenal, this is the most direct and scenic route to La Fortuna. That said, you should ALWAYS stop and bird along the way because this underbirded area has lots of great middle elevation forest!

    This road provides access to a number of excellent sites including Pocosol, but the two places I visited this past Sunday are the most accessible; (1) The road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and (2) the San Luis Canopy Restaurant.

    You will see the road to Manuel Brenes on the left, just as you reach an interesting marsh (aren’t they all) and lakes on the right side of the road. These lakes are supposedly good for Pied-billed Grebe although we didn’t see this uncommon Costa Rican resident on Sunday. I was expecting the usual rutted, rough track but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was in pretty good condition. Although you have to watch out for menacing rocks, and feel scared crossing small bridges, even a two wheel drive could manage this birdy track.

    Yes, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve is a birdy track AND it has almost no traffic!

    A birdy looking track.

    It passes through nice middle elevation forest (800 meters) for several kilometers before coming to a more open area where the road forks. Even the open area was good and looked like the perfect place to scan treetops for Lovely Cotinga. We didn’t continue past the fork and I suspect the road gets worse from there but who knows?

    Despite getting rained out for half of the morning, we had a pretty good selection of species and I know this area has much more to offer (others have seen antswarms and Tiny Hawk for example). Once the rain stopped, we saw:

    Too rainy to fly today.

    Perched Short-tailed Hawks. I am pretty sure this is the only time I have seen this species on a perch anywhere (I have probably seen at least a couple hundred in flight). We also got a perched White Hawk from the same location

    The beautiful White Hawk is seen now and then when birding Costa Rica.

    in addition to Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Guan (pretty common along the road), flybys of Brown-hooded Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and tanagers such as Passerini’s, Crimson-collared, Silver-throated, Palm, and the local Blue and Gold.

    Blue and Gold Tanager sharing a tree with a much duller Palm Tanager.

    Mixed flocks along the road had Spotted Woodcreeper,

    Spotted Woodcreeper is the common woodcreeper of foothill and middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica.

    Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (no pic but trust me, we had perfect looks at this warbler-like flycatcher), Plain Xenops, White-ruffed Manakin, Lesser Greenlet, noisy Olive Tanagers, Black and Yellow Tanagers, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

    The lack of trails going into the forest makes it very difficult to see the Thicket Antpittas and Black-headed Antthrushes that we heard but the area is still very much worth a visit and can even be done as a day trip from San Jose (about an hour and a half drive).

    Another view of this birdy road.

    The other thing that makes this a great site for a day trip is the nearby Arboleda Restaurant at the San Luis Canopy. Watch for it on the east side of the road on your way back to San Jose. Or, you can stop there before you get to the road to Manuel Brenes but it’s better to visit this site for lunch.

    The Arboleda Restaurant is a quick 10 minute drive from the entrance to Manuel Brenes road.

    The San Luis Canopy site mostly does those canopy zipline tours but they also have several hummingbird feeders and views into the cloud forest from the restaurant (which is very good and has decent prices). They also have a trail but it’s not very developed and is more for maintaining the ziplines. The hummingbird feeders are the main attraction and showcase such stars as Green-crowned Brilliant,

    Green-crowned Brilliants are common at cloud forest feeders when birding Costa Rica.

    Coppery-headed Emerald,

    One of Costa Rica's endemic bird species.

    Green Hermit,

    Green Hermits are pretty common in foothill and cloud forests when birding Costa Rica.

    Violet-crowned Woodnymph,

    Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of the more commonly seen hummingbirds of Costa Rican rainforests.

    the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,

    Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- the de-facto hummingbird when birding Costa Rica.

    and Green Thorntail.

    Green Thorntails are rather local in Costa Rica.

    I hope to make this one of my regular birding sites and will offer day tours here soon because I am sure that the forests near San Ramon have a lot more in store when birding Costa Rica!