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Birding in Costa Rica at Paraiso de Quetzales

Costa Rica is definitely a hot, tropical country. At 9 degrees latitude, the sun’s rays can burn with the intensity of some vicious alien device. In the humid lowlands, you sweat but just can’t seem to cool off. 80 degrees is the norm, it feels like summer most of the time, and thank goodness for that! However, the uplifted nature of Tico topography also makes a fair portion of the country as cool as an October night. Go high enough in the mountains and that electric October feeling can also morph into a chilly November. I know this from personal experience because I have wandered around the high, temperate zone oak forests on breezy, misty nights in search of Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl,  and Dusky Nightjars.

The latter two birds are regular while the first is pretty darn rare. I still need the saw-whet sans spots but plan on getting it this year. Part of that plan will include several layers of warm clothing, the outer shell of which will be impervious to water. I know this is what is needed to wander around high mountain forest while tooting like a tiny owl because I tried it on Saturday night at Paraiso de Quetzales (in retrospect, I think you also need to be willing to temporarily trade in some of your sanity). Although I didn’t connect with the owl, I know they are up there because others have seen them in the past.  Perhaps we would have gotten it too if we had checked more sites for a longer period of time. Although we could have spent most of the night wandering around the cold, dark forest, we didn’t want to lose a morning of birding so our small group of owl searchers opted for blanket-covered beds and traded a chance at the owl for much needed sleep.

There is some really nice high elevation rain forest at Paraiso de Quetzales.

The next morning, I I forced myself to get up at 5 and listen for birds. They weren’t exactly flying around at that unforgiving hour but were definitely making their presence known with song. On my brief, pre-breakfast stroll down the Zeledonia Trail, I heard a flock of Barred Parakeets,  several Large-footed Finches, Zeledonias, the wing rattle of a Black Guan, Black-thighed Grosbeak calling a lot like its northern Rose-breasted relative, and Collared Redstarts singing their cheerful, hurried songs. The most welcome sound of the morning, though, was the calling of Resplendent Quetzals. At least two of these spectacular birds were singing. Here is what some of the morning medley sounded like: Zeledoniaandquetzal

After some of the best coffee in the world (seriously) and a tasty breakfast, our birding club group were led by the Jorge, owner’s son, in our search for quetzals. This involved walking up to an area with a large number of wild avocados in fruit and waiting for the birds to show.  After about ten minutes, someone in our group spotted a female flying through the canopy and we quickly got onto the bird.

A typically dull female Resplendent Quetzal.

Jorge explained that the male was also probably nearby since the birds had probably finished feeding for the morning and were just sitting around, digesting the avocado fruits they had eaten for breakfast. While watching the female and waiting for the male to fly into view, someone in our group spotted the male sitting in the same tree as the female. It was perched up there in the canopy the entire time but despite its brilliant plumage, was obscured enough by a clump of leaves to keep us from noticing him! After some strategic repositioning of the scopes, we got the male into view and everyone enjoyed prolonged, soul satisfying looks at this amazing, iridescent creature.

A bad picture of the fancier male.

Watching quetzals.

As nice as quetzals are, they aren’t the only birds you see at “Quetzal Paradise”. Black-capped Flycatchers were hawking insects from fencepost perches, Large-footed Finches scratched in the leaf litter, Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the bushes, and mixed flocks of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared Redstarts, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, and other highland endemics rushed through the vegetation. Our group also had great looks at Buffy Tuftedcheek that came in to playback and some people also had glimpses of Silver-fronted Tapaculos that skulked in the dense undergrowth. The best sighting was arguably that of a Peg-billed Finch spotted by two fortunate individuals as this uncommon finch has been a tough bird to find in recent years.

Of course the hummingbird action at the feeders was pretty darn good too! The lighting was perfect for admiring the jewel-like plumage of multiple Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds vied with the Fiery-throateds for attention, and an occasional Green Violetear zoomed in to the feeders before being chased away. Volcano Hummingbirds were also common at Paraiso de Quetzales but they didn’t dare come to the feeders. I was surprised to not see White-throated Mountain-Gem in the forest as an orange-flowered sage species was blooming throughout the understory.

Green Violetear.

Fiery-throated Hummingbirds look OK from the side,

but turn into living jewels from the front.


Magnificent Hummingbirds look pretty nice too.

Another big miss was Ochraceous Pewee as the area is usually reliable for this uncommon bird. Oh well, that’s yet another reason to head back to Paraiso de Quezales for exciting highland forest birding in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica feeders high elevations Hummingbirds

New Hummingbird Garden and feeders near Poas, Costa Rica

On of the nicest things about hummingbirds is that most species will happily visit feeders and guard them with belligerant viligance. This is such a boon because they can be so difficult to watch in forested habitats. Those glittering feathered sprites seem to be particularly speciose in cloud forests but you wouldn’t know it just by walking through the forest.  This is because a typical stroll through mossy, foggy cloud forest results in a fair number of flyby hummingbirds but rather few good sightings where you positively identify them. The experience usually plays out like this:

“chip…CHIP…chip…chp”

“A hummingbird just flew by!”

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know, it’s gone.”

“Did you get a look at it”?

“No.”

The frustrating snippet above then happens five more times before you get a good look at a perched bird and even then, it’s usually a small, dark silhouette that either goes unidentified or leaves you feeling cheated because the supposedly jewel-like plumage of the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem looked about as colorful as a shadow in a dark closet.

Now don’t get me wrong, watching hummingbirds in tropical forest doesn’t have to always be this way. If you are careful about it, intently watch the flowers they prefer, and have a quick eye, you can certainly get satisfying looks at hummingbirds. However, it’s always easier when you have a mix of flowering bushes and hanging feeders placed near forest and trees that hummingbirds can use for protection (from predators and hazards such as large raindrops). Costa Rica has its fair share of hummingbird magnets that match this description and some of the best are found near Poas Volcano.

The most well known is the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The massive plantings of Porterweed at this tourist attraction attract a huge number of hummingbirds, including uncommon species such as Black-bellied. BUT, you have to pay $30 (or more) just to hang out and watch them. If you don’t want to dish out such a high entrance fee, hang out long enough by the feeders at the resurrected hummingbird gallery soda at Cinchona and you will see most of the same species. Then, head back upslope towards Varablanca, take a right  towards Poas and keep going until you see a restaurant on the left called, “Cocina Costarricense”.

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Check out the feeders in front of the window.

Stop in and have a bite to eat or a drink and watch the hummingbird action at their feeders. The owner told me that they get more birds during the wet season but I still had a good number of species while guiding clients in the area last week. Species seen were Volcano Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violetear, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, and Magnificent Hummingbird.

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Green-crowned Brilliants like to pose. I thought this one looked kind of like a living sculpture.

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Female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems look about as nice as the males.

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I can think of other hummingbird species more magnificent than this one but that’s it’s name so what are you gonna do.

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Green Violetears may be common but that doesn’t take away from their looks.

In addition to hummingbirds, that general area is also good for other highland species such as Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, and Yellow-winged Vireo among others.

If you don’t like to include a large window, feeders, and weathered steel rods in your hummingbird pictures, head back down the road towards Varablanca and take a right towards Alajuela. Follow that road for a kilometer or two until you see a restaurant called, “Freddy Fresas” on the left. You can park right in front, and if you like stuff made with strawberries or darn good deserts (especially for Costa Rica), make sure to visit this place. The non-strawberry food is pretty good too as is the service. There is, however, an even better reason for patronizing Freddie and his friends- they maintain a beautiful garden replete with walkways, fountains, flowers, a trail through riparian cloud forest, and hummingbird feeders. Oh yeah, and it’s free too! The entrance is a white gate located just across the street from Freddy Fresas and as long as it’s open, you can just walk right on in and hang out with the birds.

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Freddy Fresas

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Their garden across the street has feeders

and big leaves!

I still need to bird the trail down to the stream as I have been told that quetzals are sometimes seen there. The hummingbird feeders are set up near the forest edge and appeared to host the same species as the restaurant up the hill except that Volcano Hummingbirds were replaced by Scintillants. I could also take pictures with more natural settings:

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A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

I will be making more visits to this hidden treasure because it’s not too far from the house, it’s underbirded, and it might hold some surprises. However, the main reason I will be visiting this site from time to time is because my daughter is crazy about strawberries so  keep an eye out for updates!

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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).