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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Common Highland Species to Know When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a pretty mountainous place. When I glance out the window of our second story home, I can see the Cordillera Central off to my left, the hulking Irazu Volcano in front, and the ranges of the Talamancan and Escazu Mountains off to my right. Having grown up in non-mountainous Niagara Falls, New York, I always get a kick out of that windowpane scene but it’s much better to actually head up into those higher elevations. There’s birds up in them there hills (extinct and active volcanoes actually) and a lot of them are endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. There are also wide ranging neotropical species that inhabit those mountains but, by default, they usually play second string to endemics that don’t occur beyond a two hundred mile or so radius.

As far as highland birds to become familiar with before a birding trip to Costa Rica, here are a handful of some common, cool birds that you will probably see. Not all of them are endemics but as one of my high school pals used to say, “That’s the way the ball bounces”:

1. Common Bush Tanager– It’s not exactly exciting but you will surely see them when birding any middle elevation forests in Costa Rica so it’s a good bird to know. This is a widespread bird species but with so many subspecies, who knows, maybe they will all get split some day. Also, unless you are looking at a quetzal or antpitta, don’t just shrug Common Bush-Tanagers off because unlike most other Costa Rican birds, these chunky little dudes respond to spishing. They often come in to check out that odd shushing noise and can attract other birds if they really start to chatter in response. Things like wood-wrens, brush-finches, warblers, thrushes, and even treehunters can suddenly pop into view.

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The ever common Common Bush-Tanager.

2. Purple-throated Mountain-Gem– Unlike the bush-tanager, this one is an endemic to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It’s pretty easy to see in any cloud forest and is a smart looking little bird. Like most hummingbirds, they love feeders so you will see them there. You should also see them in most highland forest and edge habitats. Watch for that white line on the face kind of like a White-eared Hummingbird.

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A frontal view of a male Purple-throated Mountain Gem.

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A side view of a male showing that face stripe.

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The females are pretty smart looking too.

3. Ruddy Treerunner– These common, highland birds creep rather than run up trees. They usually go with mixed flocks and are pretty easy to identify with their rufous back and white eyebrow.

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Not what you would call a stellar photo of a Ruddy Treerunner but at least it realistically shows how they are often seen.

4. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper– This is the most common woodcreeper of highland forests above 2,000 meters and in many montane sites, is the only woodcreeper. You will see them both with and away from mixed flocks.

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Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the default high elevation woodcreeper when birding Costa Rica.

5. Mountain Elaenia– This is a super common flycatcher anywhere in the mountains that loves edge habitats so be ready to see lots of them. If you spot a confusing, Empid-like flycatcher in the highlands, it’s probably this bird. Note the short bill, eye ring, and whitish edging to the tertials.

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A Mountain Elaenia doing its usual thing of pretending to be a flycatcher from another genus.

6. Ochraceous Wren– These tiny Winter-Wrenish birds are super common in montane forests of Costa Rica (and a good thing too because you can only see them there and in western Panama). However, unless you know the vocalizations, they get overlooked due to their canopy skulking prowess. Ok, so maybe they aren’t canopy skulkers on purpose but their tendency to hang out in the mossy, epiphytic realm of highland treetops can make them pretty hard to see.

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As you can see from this insipid image, I still haven’t been able to get a good photo of an Ochraceous Wren.

7. Flame-colored Tanager– You may have added this pretty bird to your ABA list in Arizona, or seen lots in the highland conifers of Mexico. Come to Costa Rica and you will also run across them at just about any montane site in the Central and Talamancan Mountains.

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8. Spangle-cheeked Tanager– Another common tanager of montane forests, this one is a glittering regional endemic. They sometimes troop around in large flocks, occasional bits of iridescence shining in the misty forest.

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A Spangle-cheeked Tanager from Tapanti National Park.

9. Slaty Flowerpiercer– This is another super common small bird of the Costa Rican highlands. It’s hyperactive as a a Kindergarten class let loose in the Wonka factory but you will get looks at them by hanging around flowering bushes. I finally got an Ok shot of a singing male at Volcan Barva.

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Check out the crazy bill of this Slaty Flowerpiercer. It looks like a hefty bird in this image but trust me, these things are dainty.

10. Mountain Robin– It’s hard to get duller looking than this but they are really common in the Costa Rican highlands so they are good to know.

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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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Introduction middle elevations

Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project, Costa Rica

For the past two years, every time I have seen Sara Clark on a Birding Club of Costa Rica field trip, she has asked me when I was going to come up and visit her farm/reforestation project in the mountains above Grecia. Last week, I finally got the chance to accept her invite, walk the hilly trails of her land, and survey the local avifauna. Because Sara was so wonderfully kind to give us a ride up to her place, I was also able to bring  my wife and daughter.

The trip up to Finca Dos Lados was a typical one for rural areas of the Central Valley. On paved roads that formerly felt the heavy wheels of painted, wooden ox-carts, we twisted and turned our way up and down hills and over small bridges on our way to our destination. The scenery was typical for the western central valley; fields of sugar cane, rows of coffee bushes (some shaded by a few trees, others blazed by the tropical sun), lush, wooded ravines, small towns, and “development”.

Just about the only forest left in the central valley are riparian remnants because of the tremendous pressures that a growing population has placed on the land and past government incentives to “improve” the land by actively deforesting it. The fruits of this sad “improvement” were all too apparent as we ascended a ridge to Sara’s place from Sarchi and passed near eroded cattle pastures with few cows and even fewer trees. Forests used to cover those slopes. Moist tropical forests with Three-wattled Bellbirds, trogons, Long-tailed Manakins, monkeys, and more. Now the barren slopes hosted non-native, domesticated ungulates, their parasites, and not much else because landowners in the area didn’t know of any other way to use the land.

On a bright note, the days of encouragement to “tame” the land in Costa Rica by turning it into an unwholesome pseudo-savanna are a thing of the past. Nowadays, the incentives are for reforestation and maintaining the forest already growing on your land. The government doesn’t pay out a huge amount for doing this but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Finca Dos Lados is in this program and has planted hundreds (maybe thousands?) of trees including several wild avocados (the preferred food of Resplendent Quetzals). Because Sara’s land is mostly growing back from bare pasture, there isn’t a huge number of bird species present. There are more than when non-native grass was one of the only plants around though, and there will be a lot more in the future since her land acts as one of the biological corridors between the forests of Volcan Poas and Juan Castro Blanco National Park.

Note the difference between Finca Dos Lados on the right(where reforestation is occurring), and neighboring land on the left (overgrazed by cows).

Here we are arriving at the entrance to Finca Dos Lados.

On the way in, we stopped at this shrine surrounded by vegetation that has grown up in just seven years. This was a birdy spot with Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Slate-throated Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, and of course the true to its name, Common Bush Tanager.

One of the many Common Bush Tanagers at Finca Dos Lados.

I don’t think the tanagers were the most common bird species though. That distinction, goes to the Mountain Elaenia.

Mountain Elaenias rule at Finca Dos Lados, Costa Rica. These small Empid-looking flycatchers were truly living large in the young second growth. I would say that around 70% of the birds I saw or heard were this species.

Other common birds were Red-billed and Band-tailed Pigeons.

Always nice to see a tree of Band-tailed Pigeons. As a kid, for me, this was one of those “western” birds that lived too far away in the coniferous forests of the west to even dream of seeing.

A closer look.

Near the pigeons, I was lucky to have this stunning Black-thighed Grosbeak pose for pictures.

Finca Dos Lados is set up nicely for researchers and volunteers who would like to help out, or carry out studies related to cloud forest regeneration or migration between the Pacific and Atlantic slopes. There are several bunk beds, a big kitchen, and several trails that access the continental divide and cloud forest on the Caribbean Slope. There are areas of primary forest although it takes a few hours of hiking to access it. I hope to survey those forests some day.

Standing on the continental divide.

Looking onto the Caribbean slope from the divide. I could hear either a Collared or Orange-bellied Trogon calling from the forest below. We also got glimpses of Zeledonia in this area.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers (such as the one above) were common here along with Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Flame-colored Tanager, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Sooty Robin, Yellow-thighed finch, Black and Yellow Silky, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Despite intently looking and listening, and being entertained by the duetting of Prong-billed Barbets that echoed throughout the valley during my stay, there weren’t any signs of bellbirds. With the number of fruiting trees that have been planted, though, future visitors to Finca dos Lados will probably get the chance to hear their loud, clanging calls.

Hopefully, Miranda will be one of them.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.