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bird finding in Costa Rica high elevations

Poas: Quick and Easy Cloud Forest Birding in Costa Rica

On your way to Costa Rica? As the plane descends below the clouds and makes its approach to the Juan SantaMaria airport, look out the window to the north. You might notice that one of those green-topped mountains is punctuated with a big, rocky crater. That particular mountain would be Poas, one of the main volcanoes that overlooks the Central Valley. You can actually visit that crater, walk right up to the edge, and look in to see the steam rising from an uninviting, acidic pool of water. The experience requires an online reservation and the stay is limited to 30 minutes, but that is one way to visit Poas.

Another way is not actually going to the crater of this popular national park but visiting the upper slopes of the volcano from the road. With the trails being closed near the crater, this is currently the most productive way for a birder to visit Poas, and is also the easiest means of seeing a great selection of cloud forest species just 45 minutes from the airport. Yes, it really is that close and there really are Resplendent Quetzals, Wrenthrushes, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and many other highland endemics up there in the forests of that green mountain.

The straightforward access to habitats on Poas make for quick and easy cloud forest birding. Although most birders get their highland species fix in the Dota Region and/or Monteverde, a birder with an extra morning, day, or afternoon can’t go wrong with a visit to Poas. These are a few easy ideas and some of the birds that can be seen and photographed:

Birds in the Central Valley

Before driving to Poas, you may want to check for other species at or near your hotel. A fair number of bird species occur in hotel gardens, remnant forest in riparian zones, and on coffee farms. Although the majority are common species of edge habitats that can also be seen elsewhere, some are more easily seen in the Central Valley. These include such species as Lesson’s Motmot, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and Chestnut-collared Swift among others.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Take Route 146

This is the most direct and quickest route to the Poas area. Although there is very little room to pull over and bird on the way up, some of the side roads can have both ground-sparrows, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and other more common species.

Birding at Freddo Fresas, Sazones, and other sites in Poasito

Poasito is the main settlement on the upper part of Route 146. Because the area receives a number of local visitors, especially on weekends, there are a number of cafes, restaurants, and other small tourist attractions. A few of these places have gardens and/or access to a riparian zone that can host Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Red-faced Spinetail and other species of middle elevation habitats. At times, fruiting trees can also attract Black Guan, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and even Resplendent Quetzal! The garden at Freddo Fresas is the best spot for hummingbirds and can also be good for other species. Sazones has one of the nicest views of the riparian zone although fruiting trees can also be seen right from the main road.

Red-faced Spinetail

The Volcan Restaurant

After taking the turn towards Poas instead of Varablanca, the vehicle quickly descends to a forested riparian zone. The Volcan Restaurant is on the left, next to a stream, and is a good place to stop for lunch. Hummingbird feeders in the back attract several species including Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Violet Sabrewing, and Lesser Violetear. Wait long enough and you might also see Magenta-throated Woodstar and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Volcano Hummingbirds are regular, Scintillant only very rarely so, be careful about separating the females of these two similar species. In the forest, various cloud forest species can occur including quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet and Spangle-cheeked Tanager but quite often, this site is pretty quiet.

Prong-billed Barbet
Volcano Hummingbird (Poas form)

The high elevations

The best habitat along the road is after Poas Lodge. There are few places to pull the vehicle off the road and one has to be careful of traffic to and from the national park. The birding can be good anywhere along this stretch, the best activity occurring at fruiting trees and where mixed flocks are roaming. A good number of high elevation species are also possible including Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty Thrush, Black-capped Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Ruddy Treerunner, and various other birds. This upper part is also where a birder needs to go to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Wrenthrush, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Highland Tinamou are present but are more often heard than seen.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

Varablanca

Just 7 minutes from Poasito to the east, the crossroads at Varablanca make for a nice stop. There are a few cafes here, the one I recommend the most is the place just across the street from the gas station. They have an espresso machine, various snacks, empanadas, and so on. Although the habitat at this spot has decreased, it can still be good for Yellow-winged Vireo, Collared Redstart, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and other species.

Streak-breasted Treehunter
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus

Whether fitting in a morning of birding or a full day of high and middle elevation species, the Poas area is ideal for quick and easy birding from the San Jose area. Email me at information@birdingcraft.com to learn more about tour options for the Poas area and the best places to stay for birding in Costa Rica. The birding is always exciting, I hope to see you soon!

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Birding Costa Rica central valley high elevations Introduction preparing for your trip

Mountain roads and Volcan Barva birding in Costa Rica

From the second story of our house in Santa Barbara de Heredia, we can see the Talamancas rising up in the hazy distance off to the southeast and big, blocky Irazu with a slight turn of the head to the left. Volcan Turrialba lies hidden behind 11,000 foot Irazu but still makes itself known by broadcasting a daily cloud of smoke and vapor. Scanning further left and to the north, a forested ridge of peaks that are protected within Braulio Carrillo National Park dominate the scene. As mountains tend to do, they look so close and inviting that you start to think to yourself, hey I could just walk up there and watch birds! Skip on through the coffee plantations and riparian growth that cling to the edges of streams and rivers and head on up into the forest proper. Leave the asphalted oxcart paths and urbanizations behind for majestic oaks (they are tree royalty after all) and the vegetation overload of high-elevation, Costa Rican cloud forests.

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Turrilba smoking at dawn.

They look so close and no wonder because with Google Earth’s handy ruler, I just discovered that the peak of Volcan Barva is only 6 miles from my house as the Crimson-fronted Parakeet flies! This revelation is particularly astounding because it took at least 45 minutes to drive up there this past Sunday. The reasons for such a gross discrepancy between  distance and driving time are quite valid and also hint at why the Spanish didn’t bother very much with the mountainous areas of Costa Rica.

First and foremost, the broken terrain that is bisected and trisected by small streams that have somehow carved huge ravines out of the crumpled surroundings presents, as you can now imagine, some difficulty for overland travel. Paved roads and cars make it about a thousand times easier to go visit the abuelos (grandparents) for Sunday dinner compared to 50 years ago but travel times between places that are so close to each other still makes you feel as if you have entered some sort of slow motion timewarp or Tico tesseract. Travel in a straight line is strictly for the birds or Uraniid moths because roads are necessarily curvy and twisting affairs that wind their way up and down mountains. This makes for beautiful scenery but may also leave you feeling quite envious of moths, vultures, and other animals that can fly.

Speaking of roads, we can now contemplate the second reason why 5 miles up the mountain is better defined as 30 miles up the mountain. Before I start, though, let me say that roads have greatly improved in Costa Rica over the past 5 years. It’s true! There are fewer potholes and better maintenance of Costa Rican byways and the coastal highway makes it a breeze to travel in the Pacific lowlands. That said, the thing that keeps you from speeding along smoothly-paved mountain roads is that they were built for oxcarts.

Tico oxcarts in a parade.

Those roads have been around for a while but they were just never meant for cars. This is why they have more than one lane but not quite two except at bridges when they are most definitely one-laned. I apologize if that sounds confusing but rest assured, if you aren’t entirely clear about that last sentence then you have an idea of what it’s like to drive these mountain roads. Because there is little room for two cars (and no shoulder) you have to drive at a more relaxed, careful pace, obviously so when sharing the road with vehicles headed your way.  It’s only harrowing if you go fast so to keep the peace with your heart rate and avoid an overload of adrenaline (not to mention staying alive), you make your way up and down the mountains in a leisurely, low-speed manner.

The skinny and winding nature of mountain roads in Costa Rica assures that travel is slow-going but it also makes the drive quite pleasant and allows you to spot birds like Blue-crowned Motmot, Blue-gray tanager, or Band-tailed Pigeon (just a few of the species I saw from the car on Sunday). Since distances are short, it doesn’t take too long to get from A to B. A greater problem, however, is presented by “traditional” roads that were never paved or who have allied with the elements to reject asphalt and literally shed their modernized surface for a return to old-fashioned, stony ways. These are the roads that require four-wheel drive and even then are better left to oxcarts, mountain-bikes, and lunar vehicles. Oh, they are also good for walking and this is exactly what you should do for visiting Barva.

The benefits of leaving your car at one of the houses that charges 1,000 colones (two bucks) for parking once you reach the end of the pavement are ample exercise, nice birding, and relief from wondering if an axle on your vehicle will snap in two.  I think it’s about a mile to the ranger station and the uphill hike passes through cloud forest patches,

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pastures dotted with old growth oaks,

and nice forest once you pass the limits for the national park. You can see most of the bird species that occur in the area on the way up (including Resplendent Quetzal- I saw 3 on Sunday!) and the double whammy of less oxygen and uphill walking will fulfill your exercise requirements for the next two weeks. This will also assure that you stop more frequently which will in turn result in more bird sightings.

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Misty weather made for silhouette photos of the quetzals- its profile reminds me of a cross between a pigeon and a raptor.

Once you make it to the ranger station, for the usual park fee of $10 (1,000 colones for residents), you can extend your hike even further to a high elevation lagoon or walk a beautiful trail that loops through old growth oak forest. Or, if you are tired of walking, just hang out in the peaceful glade at the ranger station and watch birds, meditate, practice Tai Chi, or have a picnic. Please don’t tarnish the place by doing a Sudoku however- those Japanese number puzzles should be left for the plan ride home or if you have to wait in line at a Tico bank.

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The peaceful and birdy glade at Volcan Barva, Costa Rica.

As of Sunday, there was one picnic table that could still be used (the high elevation bath of mist, rain, and fog has finally compromised the structure of the other one such that sitting on it is no longer an option) and most of the area’s birds could show up in the surrounding high elevation forest.

Fruiting bushes attracted glittering Spangle-cheeked Tanagers,

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers (here a dusky youngster),

Black and Yellow Silky

and more conservatively attired (but just as regionally endemic) Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager

Mixed flocks came through the area on a regular basis and were comprised of the three frugivorous birds mentioned above plus

Yellow-winged Vireo- here placing a twig between itself and the camera to thwart my attempts at digitally capturing this relative of the Hutton’s Vireo (I’ll get its soul next time),

Yellow-winged Vireo

Flame-throated Warbler- look for the reddish spot in the photo to find this beautiful, hyperactive bird,

Flam-throated Warbler

lots of Yellow-thighed Finches,

Yellow-thighed Finch

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the only woodcreeper up in here,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper

Collared Redstart- perhaps the cutest of Costa Rican birds,

Collared Redstart

Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ochraceous Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black-cheeked Warblers in the undergrowth, Wilson’s and Black-throated Green-Warblers, and maybe a few other species.

I also saw Black Guan, White-collared Swift scything the air with its wings, three nightingale-thrush species, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Long-tailed Silky, Large-footed Finch, Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, and Blue and white Swallow.

I didn’t walk up to Barva this past Sunday but will make the hike on my next visit because the final, unpaved section of the road is just too rough on the car. Trekking uphill with birding equipment will train me for future big days in any case and as I trudge my way up the mountain, I can also test my hypothesis that more birds are seen the slower one goes.

Most visitors birding Costa Rica probably won’t make it to Barva because the same species occur on the more easily accessible Cerro de la Muerte. It is ideal, however, for mixing hiking or mountain biking with birding.

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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.