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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds; Identification Issues

Last weekend, I escaped the Central Valley to guide the BCCR (Birding Club of Costa Rica) trip to Baru near Dominical. The drive to Dominical is always interesting as the most direct route from San Jose traverses the high Talamancan mountains. Once you find your way to Cartago (which would be fairly easy if the signs were located a few blocks before the turn-offs instead of after them) and get on the road to San Isidro, the highway quickly ascends the fantastic Talamancan Mountain Range. Although the scenery is nice, it is particularly fantastic because most of this rugged cordillera is cloaked in high elevation rain forest. Just after departing Cartago, the road passes through and near beautiful cloud forest that probably holds a bunch of rare birds. Although there isn’t any good way to bird it from the highway, at least Tapanti National Park provides access to this forest type for excellent birding.

As the road twists and turns its way up Cerro de la Muerte (the name of this mountain), it passes through interesting looking stands of lichen covered Alders and old growth oak forests with an amazing profusion of epiphytes, mosses, and bromeliads on their branches, and passes by the turn-off to San Gerardo de Dota- the valley where most birders stay when ticking high elevation Talamancan endemics. Further on, the highway passes by the entrance to the Paraiso de Quetzales (Quetzal Paradise) where Eddie Serrano can take you on a short tour to see Resplendent Quetzals. He also has cabins now, but like several places, has unfortunately raised prices over the past few years.

Still ascending, the highway reaches its highest points in the paramo zone above the treeline (aside from visiting the Irazu crater, this area is the most accessible site for Volcano Junco). About 15 minutes (?) after the paramo, La Georgina is found on the left side of the road. This roadside diner offers good, traditional food and even better high elevation birding. A steep trail behind the place goes through primary forest and harbors all high elevation forest species of the Talamancas, while the feeders just outside the windows of the diner provide opportunities for studying Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. Although Volcano Hummingbirds and Gray-tailed Mountain-gems are present, they mostly stick to the garden and forest, leaving the feeders to the two larger species. Similar in size, Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds can look quite similar as they both have long, straight bills, and a small, white, postocular spot. Feeders, though, at least provide the opportunity to study the differences between these two high elevation hummingbird species.

Structurally, the Fiery-throated is daintier with a more needle-like bill,

while the Magnificent is a bit more grandiose because of its larger bill size.

A close look at the bills also reveals one of the easiest ways to separate them. Note the reddish on the lower mandible of this Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

while that of the Magnificent is entirely black.

Of course the color differences seem to be obvious too but like most hummingbirds, the colors you see depend upon how the light is reflected off of their feathers. At first, none of these birds showed these glittering plumages that resemble finely jeweled chain mail. They just looked like large, dark hummingbirds until the flash of the camera revealed their colorful secrets.

Another way to separate them when their colors aren’t evident, is by the more defined gorget that the Magnificent shows. Even if this patch of beryl-green is not visible, the gorget stands out as a darker throat, something that the Fiery-throated lacks. It also lacks the distinctive face pattern shown by the female Magnificent.

Our stop at La Georgina was a short one, but I will make up for that by visiting soon to get all the high elevation species needed for my BIG YEAR.