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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

Cloud forest birding in Costa Rica: birds in the mist

In the wet lowlands, it’s always humid and the rain can arrive as a steady misting sprinkle or as (most often) as a sudden downpour with billions of huge drops that pound the zinc roofs with sodden fury. It’s so wet that if you don’t make an effort to dry out the clothes in your closet, your wardrobe will be supporting its very own ecosystem of molds and fungi (I once had mushrooms growing on my backpack in Amazonian Ecuador). If you visit the rainy, lower elevations of Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean Slope where 6 meters per year can fall (that’s about 18 feet for us metric illiterate Americans), you can expect to get wet even with an umbrella or poncho but you probably won’t have to worry about fog.

For that, you have to head upslope into the cloud forest. Just as humid as the rainforests of the lowlands but with cooler temperatures, this is where the clouds that water the lowlands  like to hang out. With a blanket of thick moisture blocking the sun and providing a constant aerial mist that waters an amazing abundance of plants, living is this life zone is probably like residing in a rather cool, shaded greenhouse. It would be challenging to deal with the constant moisture but you could cultivate orchids instead of roses would also have a heck of an interesting yard list. At least this is how my birding friend Janet Peterson and I felt while birding the Varablanca area last week.

Inspired by Skutch’s accounts of studying Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the same area, we searched for fruiting Lauraceae tree species that might attract these fancy, uncommon birds. Although we didn’t get lucky in finding a single fruiting Lauraceae, nor did we hear a single bellbird, it was still a beautiful day of birding in Costa Rica.

Deforestation since Skutch’s time equates to fewer bellbirds and cotingas but a lot more meadowlarks.

The views up there were stunning.

One of our best spots was at a site along the road between Poas and Varablanca not too far from the Poas Volcano Lodge. While the smells of home-cooked food and the usual sounds of rural Costa Rica (chickens clucking, roosters crowing, a dog or two barking, someone hammering, a bit of music) reached our ears from nearby houses, we watched a fair variety of cloud forest species in trees that grew out of a ravine next to the road. This meant that we could look straight into the canopy of these trees but because we were in the cloud forest life zone, we mostly watched birds through a shifting veil of mist.

Band-tailed Pigeons were common. We could hear them flapping their way around but they rarely landed within view. Maybe this one felt safe because it thought it was blending into its cloudy surroundings.

There were also a few Dark Pewees around.

Other birds were building nests nearby such as the Mountain Elaenia. This has to be one of the most common highland flycatchers. They thrive in edge habitats and sometimes seem to outnumber Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Our favorite sighting, though, was of a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were building a nest in a bromeliad on a nearby tree. You almost always hear this little gem before you see it and when birding in dense forest often don’t see it at all. They make a soft, short whistled call that is easy to imitate and often brings them in close. Due to their cloud forest habitat, their brilliant emerald, powder blue, and bright yellow plumage often looks as muted as their call until the mist lifts and they suddenly shine like some incredible forest jewel.

A female in the mist.

And a male in the mist.

The male Chlorophonia trying to blend in with a bromeliad.

And then as the mist lifted a bit, the male’s colors became more bright.

Other birds in the vicinity were Wilson’s Warbler (a common winter resident of the highlands),

Slate-throated Redstart,

and Flame-colored Tanager.

Mountain Robins provided a background soundtrack throughout the morning. To me, they sound more like some type of yellowthroat than a thrush. Click the following link to listen to one that singing at the ravine:  mountainrobin1

Past the ravine, we ventured down the Cinchona road a bit. The road is good up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens but beyond that is officially closed because of the threat of landslides. Despite a large, obvious sign that warned of the danger, a number of cars and motorcycles just drove right on past on their way to the lowlands. I suspect that one could drive the road all the way to Sarapiqui, but why risk your life? Stick to birding the upper part like we did and you should see a good number of species in any case. Some of the other good birds we saw were:

Resplendent Quetzal- one heard and a female seen as it flew across the road near Carrizal,

Blue-throated (Emerald) Toucanet- several of these beautiful birds,

Prong-billed Barbet,

Green Violetear and Coppery-headed Emerald at flowering Inga species,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper,

Red-faced Spinetail,

Tufted Flycatcher,

and Spangle-cheeked Tanager,

Although we didn’t see any cotingas, I bet they are still up there somewhere. Hopefully I will figure out where the fruiting Lauraceae are on my next visit to the area.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Barva Volcano Birding in Costa Rica

Last weekend, I finally got the chance to visit the Barva Sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park after years of hoping to check out this site. Despite seeing its welcoming, jade-green vegetation beckoning from a distance on a daily basis, I hadn’t become acquainted with the upper reaches of Barva Volcano because of the difficulties in accessing this mountain with public transportation. Last weekend, though, a friend of mine who teaches at the European School was bringing a group of students up to Barva for some hiking and had one extra space in the bus. My friend graciously offered me that coveted little seat and I finally got the chance to see the Barva Sector for some recon and birding.

Meeting up at the European School in San Pablo de Heredia (you always have to mention the “de Heredia” part because there might also be a “San Pablo de Cartago” or “de Limon” or “de who knows what else”), the old, riparian growth behind the school contrasted with the nearby car-exhausted streets and over-profusion of concrete to provide a sanctuary for birds and other animals that somehow manage to hang on in the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers called from the undergrowth while Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers complained about the White-tailed Kite that was conspicuously perched at the top of a bare tree. The resemblance this raptor has to a gull during flight never fails to impress me. Really, if you think you see a gull anywhere inland in Costa Rica, it’s probably one of those graceful White-tailed Kites. Although this will sound like an extreme non-event to most birders, I also got my first Mourning Dove of the year. These aren’t too common in Costa Rica and I needed it for my Big Year (which is coming along slowly yet steadily).

After waiting for the few compulsory late students, our bus joined the stream of traffic moving through Heredia and made our way towards Barva Volcano. Not to be confused with the volcano (although like the roads here it is certainly confusing), we passed through the town of Barva and followed the brown volcano signs on curvy roads that threaded their way uphill through coffee plantations. I wish I could tell you which roads we actually took but since no roads are signed, all I can suggest is that you follow the brown volcano signs, or better yet use a GPS. Some of the rental cars have fantastic GPS systems that show your car moving along Costa Rica’s confusing labyrinth of roads- I personally wish I had one of those showing me walking through the maze of streets. That way I could faithfully walk with purpose to my destination instead of walking with purpose to the next pulperia to ask for directions that are usually about as sound as Costa Rica’s active fault lines.

After around 40 minutes of ascending through pastures, coffee plantations, and patches of cloud forest that would be worth birding, we stopped when the asphalt gave out. My friend then informed us that the hiking was to commence! Three ks uphill to the ranger station and then on into the park. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep up with those energy-filled adolescents because I simply couldn’t. They seemed to race on uphill through the rarified, 2,000 plus meter air while I slowly trudged up the road wishing that I had an oxygen tank. Although I was carrying a scope and more gear than them, I discovered that I was much more out of shape than I had realized! This was not a happy discovery but at least moving more slowly meant that I had a better chance at getting bird pics. Well, that’s what I thought until in addition to this self realization that I needed to exercise more often, I also found out during the course of the day that highland birds are far from sluggish. On the contrary, most are dowright hyperactive which makes them very difficult to get pictures of (hence the general lack of photos in this post).

Although the birds were tough to photograph, at least the scenery was nice. From this high vantage point, I could see the dreadful extent of urbanization that has occurred in the Central Valley and be grateful for the fresh, mountain scented air.

The walk up those three ks to the ranger station was OK for birding in pastures with remnant, massive oak trees but got better once the high elevation forests of the park were reached. Species I had on the way up were flybys of Band-tailed Pigeons, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Blue and white Swallow, Mountain Robin, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstarts, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and a whole mess of Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Cool, massive, oak tree at least 300 years old.

One of the many Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Slim pickings overall really with the most interesting birds being Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds concentrated around a large flowering bush.

Here is a nice, little female Volcano Hummingbird.

The area around the station was pleasant for birding and just hanging out. There were a few picnic tables amidst good, high elevation habitat. As at most high elevation sites in Costa Rica, a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush was hopping around and being friendly (I love friendly birds- they get named extra-friendly when they pose for pictures).

Extra friendly Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.

Many other birds came to the ranger station and although I didn’t see any Quetzals, I am sure they show up now and then. From the ranger station, the road gently ascends to lagoons, an overlook, and a couple of trails. I never made it to the lagoons as I took the “Cacho de Venado” trail. The trail was beautiful and the birding good in high elevation forest with sections of interesting elfin forest.

Main trail for Barva.

High elevation forests always have this enchanting, mystical appeal for me. Whether it’s the pleasant climate, lack of mosquitoes, or lack of oxygen that makes you think you are seeing birds that never existed, a visit is always thrilling (at least during rare, nice weather). The huge, old trees are covered in moss and some look like the “dark side of the force” tree on Dagobah.

Dagobah-like tree sans visions of Darth Vader or the far scarier Jar Jar Binks.

Striking red bromeliad- an adaptation for the high UV index typical of high elevations in the tropics.

On Barva, the tinkling calls of Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers filtered down from the canopy while Black-faced Solitaires sang their beautiful, etheral songs from the understory. Mixed flocks were pretty common and included quite a few Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers. Here is a young one that was friendly.

Other bird species I saw or heard in the forest and at the station were Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo (just one), Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous Wren, Black-cheeked Warbler, Zeledonia (one heard), Spangled-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches (too hyperactive to be friendly), and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

This young Chlorophonia was friendly enough.

We left Barva when as it started to rain around 1 P.M. Although I would love to visit the peaceful, quiet woods of Barva again, it probably won’t happen until we get a car. By then, though, we should be living in nearby Santa Barbara de Heredia and so might visit on a regular basis.