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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.

birding Costa Rica

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

birding Costa Rica

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 Introduction middle elevations

Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.