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bird finding in Costa Rica Hummingbirds

The Corso Lecheria Hummingbird Stop

Hummingbirds are an essential component of Costa Rica. At least one species is found at just about every birding stop and many times, more than one. In Costa Rica, these miniature jeweled pollinators range from the humid rainforests of the lowlands to the cold brushy paramos on the highest peaks, and occur everywhere in between, especially in cloud forest and other middle elevation habitats. Although most species are resident, many make short migrations or movements to track various plants in flower at lower and higher elevations or to other parts of the country. Where and when hummingbirds go in Costa Rica is not as well known as it could be, and any additional data will further our understanding of these special birds and therefore also help conserve them.

Documenting where and when they are seen is part of the hummingbird conservation equation in Costa Rica and gives us that much more reason to spend time with these feathered jewels. Fortunately, they are always fun to watch, one of the newer places to check them out being the Corso Lecheria. Rather new on the Costa Rica birding scene, this dairy farm features a healthy bunch of Porterweed hedgerows that provide food for a number of hummingbirds.

Located on the saddle road between Poas and Barva volcanoes, around 2 kilometers east of the junction at Poasito, Corso makes for an easy and typically productive stop. After entering the parking area, just watch for the hedgerows with purple flowers on the left and wait for the birds to show.

They eventually will, Volcano Hummingbird might be the first one you see. This tiny bird seems to be the most common species at this site although there are usually a few Scintillants around as well!

Female Volcano Hummingbird.
Male Scintillant Hummingbird.

Lesser Violetears are also usually present.

Other hummingbirds regular at Corso also include Stripe-tailed,

Magenta-throated Woodstar,

and Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

Since this is an important source of nectar, who knows what else might show? Since it looks like a prime site for such rarities as coquettes or other species, visiting birders should carefully document any hummingbird that looks different or goes unidentified. Since the hummingbird viewing is also free, it would also be good for visiting birders to frequent their ice cream store. That shouldn’t be too much trouble, I mean isn’t hummingbird viewing best followed by ice cream tasting?

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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).

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds

Three coquettes seen on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica?

Coquettes are these tiny, insect-like hummingbirds that are strong contenders for being the most exquisite group of birds on Earth. The males in particular, with their incredibly ornate tufts and crests, remind me of glass figurines of hummingbirds crafted by someone with a fearless imagination and tendency towards extravagance, or perhaps jeweled pendants fabricated by an artist who has a thing for wispy plumes.

The group as a whole (along with their relatives, the Thorntails) just look unbelievable and so of course they are among the most wanted of hummingbird species. As is common with many bird species that elicit gasps when viewing their illustrations in a field guide, however, coquettes are (sigh) also among the least guaranteed of hummingbird species. I think one or two species in Peru and Brazil grace feeders with their presence but none of the three species that have been identified in Costa Rica have developed a taste for sugar water.

In addition to their disenchantment with “feeder juice”, there are three other reasons I can think of to explain the difficulty in seeing coquettes:

1. They are inconspicuous and bug-like by nature. Seriously, when they fly around, they resemble a slow and steady bumblebee or other fat, largish insect. This is probably no coincidence because such a strategy likely allows them to sneak into flower patches that are viciously guarded by larger hummingbirds. Thus it pays to check out chunky bugs seen flying around when birding Costa Rica. They might turn into coquettes when viewed through binoculars and if not, well there’s a lot of super cool looking insects in Costa Rica in any case.

2. Coquettes feed on smaller flowers, many of which occur way up in the tops of trees. Even if you do see a coquette as it feeds in the canopy, you will probably pass it off as a bug because it will look like one 100 feet above where you are standing. On a more positive note, coquettes also feed on Stachytarpheta bushes at eye level. Not always, but watch some Porterweed long enough in the right place and you have a fair chance of seeing one.

3. Coquettes move around in search of their favorite flowering trees. How could we not expect persnickety behavior from such flamboyant creatures? The three coquette species of Costa Rica move up and down slope and who knows where else to get their fill of select, vintage nectars. It is perhaps this fact that presents the biggest challenge to seeing them. Little is known about their movements in Costa Rica except that they might be present for a time at one site and then who knows where the following week.

So, they are tough to find but how about some information about each species? The three coquettes that have occurred in Costa Rica are the Black-crested Coquette, White-crested Coquette, and the Rufous-crested Coquette.

The one that is most regularly seen when birding Costa Rica is the Black-crested Coquette. Buzzing around the humid forests of the Caribbean Slope from southeastern Mexico to Central Costa Rica, this creature can show up at a number of sites but appears to be most regularly seen in Costa Rica at foothill and middle elevations south to about Rancho Naturalista (a good site for them). The other, easiest site for this bird when birding Costa Rica is the Arenal area. They could be seasonal there but birders have an excellent chance of connecting with this species by watching the flowering bushes around the Arenal Observatory Lodge or entrance to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. El Tapir just outside of Braulio Carrillo Park has also been a regular site for the Black-crested Coquette as was Virgen del Socorro.

The White-crested Coquette looks particularly stunning but it’s not easy despite only being found from Carara south to western Panama. It didn’t seem like they were very tough to find when I was birding the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula some years ago but that may have been a fluke. I recall seeing them pretty easily around patches of flowering Inga. species trees and have even had them at flowering balsas. I suspect that southwestern Costa Rica is still the most reliable area for this species when birding Costa Rica (the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre often know where to find them) although it occurs as far north as the Carara area (where it’s super rare) and even moves into the Central Valley at certain times of the year (maybe October and November?).

The Rufous-crested Coquette is a vagrant to Costa Rica that hasn’t been positively identified for a number of years. I bet at least a few show up in country and get overlooked though, especially if they search for flowers in the underbirded southeastern sector of the country. Since this bird has been recorded just across the border in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the southeast is also the most likely area for it to turn up. These little, rufous-crested sprites were historically recorded from San Jose though so it’s not entirely out of the question to have one turn up in the Central Valley or perhaps even in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

In fact, one may have showed up at El Tapir just last week. Not only that, but rumor has it that it was also sharing space with the other two coquette species in a roadside garden somewhere near the arial tram! If true, this would be like hitting the once in a lifetime Costa Rican birding jackpot. So far, it’s still just a rumor and hasn’t been authenticated but given the coquette’s propensity for wandering combined with freaky weather that could affect flowering patterns, it’s not entirely out of the question. If I check the situation out and hit the jackpot, I will make up for the lack of coquette photos in this post by showing all three in my next.