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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

6 Days in Costa Rica, 300 Bird Species

The number of bird species that occur in Costa Rica is kind of off the charts. Yes, Colombia has the most and Mexico even has a bigger list than Tiquicia but in terms of avian diversity per square meter, Costa Rica is hard to beat. Tired of seeing lifers in the bird-rich Caribbean lowlands? An additional suite of tanagers, antbirds, and others are a short drive away. Want more hummingbird? Head higher into the mountains and all the hummingbirds are new along with a healthy set of near endemics.

Near endemics like that bird with the bulldog look, Prong-billed Barbet.

Go to the other side of the mountains and more birds are possible. Suffice to say, in Costa Rica, a bonanza of birding awaits and good roads make it easy! I was thinking about just that while guiding a small group of friends two weeks ago. As we visited such sites as Tolomuco, the Dota Valley, and the Caribbean lowlands, the birds added up, and many were high quality, much desired species. During that time frame, more than 300 species were identified, and more than a few were added on the final days of the trip with another guide. Not only did we see around 300 species of birds during the first 6 days, but we also had many birds that were uncommon and/or difficult.

Birds like Great Potoo.

These are some of the highlights:

Resplendent Quetzal

One of the most spectacular bird species in the world can’t help but be a perpetual highlight. We had especially good looks at a roadside male in the Dota Valley. Lately, quetzals have also been showing on the road to Poas, it should get even better as the avocado fruit crop ripens in the next few weeks.

Other key highland species: Silvery-throated Jay

Although most of the high elevation birds are fairly easy to see, a few others can be a real challenge to find. One of those key rare species is the Silvery-throated Jay. Unlike some other Corvids, this small dark blue jay needs high quality primary forest and even then it’s not that common. With that in mind, finding two in the primary forests on Savegre’s Robles Trail was an excellent way to end a great day of birding.

31 species of Hummingbirds

And that’s not counting the Band-tailed Barbthroats that were heard nor the guide only Bronzy Hermit seen at Quinta de Sarapiqui! Thanks to feeders and flowering bushes, we had a fine haul of hummingbirds including White-tipped Sicklebill. Tolomuco was especially good and gave us sightings of Volcano, Scintillant, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, White-tailed and Garden Emeralds, and other species.

Scintillant Hummingbird

White-throated Mountain-gem was also nice.

Great Green Macaws, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and White-fronted Nunbirds in the Sarapiqui Lowlands

Birding in the Sarapiqui lowlands paid off with more than 150 bird species identified in one action packed day along with views of White-fronted Nunbirds, Pied Puffbird (plus White-necked heard), Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, White-ringed Flycatcher, and many more. Great Green Macaws were seen feeding at close range, and we finished the day with close views of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. All of our birding took place on the La Selva entrance road, another excellent birding road that loops behind the Selva Verde property, and roads near Quinta de Sarapiqui.

Cinchona, Guarumo, and Cope

Stops at various sites with fruit feeders rounded out the trip. Both barbets, Northern Emerald Toucanet, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Black Guan (!) showed at Cinchona. Guarumo, a rather new site near Cope’s places, had point blank views of both large toucans and various other lowland species, and Cope’s gave us the sicklebill and American Pygmy Kingfisher as soon as we arrived!

As far as the birding goes, it was pretty fantastic every day of the trip but as always, the biggest highlight was guiding people who truly relish the experience. Hope you have a good birding trip to Costa Rica!

A couple of final reminders-

If you are looking for a tour or need arrangements for your trip, I can help, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Get the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app to study for the trip, make checklists of target species and bird with your own digital field guide.

Get my e-book How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica for 700 plus pages of information on where to find birds in Costa Rica and how to see them. Your purchase is much appreciated and supports this blog!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Starting 2015 with Costa Rican Pygmy Owls and Quetzals

A week ago, a large percentage of us humans celebrated the start of another new year with best wishes and the usual countdown. It’s hard for me to take it seriously because calendars are totally subjective but it’s always a nice excuse for a party as well as the spreading of good vibes. For birders, that major calendar change also represents a chance to start counting birds once again to see how many you can identify over the next twelve months. It also acts as a time to review the birds you would like to see and tell yourself, that yes, this year, I am going to see that damn Black Rail, a Boreal Owl, or some other evasive avian creature.

This one is royalty when it comes to being evasive.

As for myself, I haven’t made any plans or statements for 2015. Sure, I would like to see a Spotted Rail but I’m going to be Zen about the whole thing and try for new birds when I can (not too many for me to try for in Costa Rica and the Masked Duck can of course va fa in ….). I will also keep track of the birds I see but think I will do so with eBird. I can’t even recall what my first bird of the year was but no matter because I saw a bunch of good ones between the 2nd and the 4th. During those dates, I was guiding/birding on Cerro de la Muerte and stayed at Myriam’s Cabins.

One of the cabins

Although the diversity was naturally low, quality was high with most species being highland endemics.

We saw several Flame-throated Warblers.

Quite a few Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers were also around.

Sooty Thrushes were common.

Up on the paramo, after a bit of searching, we eventually connected with the junco, wren, and finch (Peg-billed).

Volcano Junco!

Over at Georgina, searching the primary forests failed to find the jay but we did get the quetzal in the afternoon. Luckily, good old serpent tail sang a couple of times and a female flew in. After bad looks, a male zipped through the canopy and perched for walk away views. Yee haw!

The colors really stood out from the surrounding woods.

Not long after the quetzal, I got lucky with a glimpse of a pygmy-owl flying overhead. Unfortunately, branches obscured everything but its tick-tocking tail and then it was gone. Frustration began to set in until the bird gave us a break, started calling, and eventually came close. After hiding out in the bamboo, one more bit of whistles brought it right in front of our faces.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl winking at us.

More walk away views ensued after seeing this tough endemic surrounded by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl from the side.

Those were the two stars of the show but we also got most other species including Buff-fronted Quail-Dove on a likely nest at Myriam’s, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Spotted Wood-Quail, and super close looks at several other cool birds.

Including this Dusky Nightjar hanging out in front of the Dantica parking lot.

Despite a good deal of focused searching, we dipped on the pewee, jay, and saw-whet but found out that yes, the saw-whet is seen regularly around Myriam’s (!), and that Myriam’s also has a trail through excellent primary forest. On a disturbing note, the forest understory looks dry and rather open, and the forest looked pretty dry overall. This is not good for rainforest ecosystems adapted to getting several meters of rain per year.

Back on the good news front, Myriam’s also had nice action at the feeders, good food, and great, friendly service. Next birding stop for me might be Monteverde or maybe El Tapir. I’m not fretting though, because it’s always going to be birdy!

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bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

More Great Birding in Costa Rica on the Poas-Varablanca-Cinchona Route

I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:

After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.

We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.

The Ochraceous Wren- common but sort of skulks in the canopy of mossy high elevation forest.

Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.

The warblerish Yellow-winged Vireo.

The Warblering Vireoish Brown-capped Vireo.

A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

A cute White-bellied Mountain Gem.

About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.

Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.

Watching hummingbirds in the rain at the Volcan Restaurant.

Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).

A male Green-crowned Brilliant at the Volcan Restaurant.

Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!

The Collared Redstart is one of the more beautiful of the highland endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.

A Costa Rican Pygmy Owl on Poas.

We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.

It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.

The weird and wonderful Zeledonia, a strange wood warbler that likes to masquerade as an Asian Tesia species.

Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).

Male Resplendent Quetzal.

The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.

Here is the list for the day:

Seen heard only
Black Vulture White-throated Crake
Turkey Vulture Bare-shanked Screech Owl
White Hawk Immaculate Antbird
Black Guan Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Rock Pigeon Paltry Tyrannulet
White-winged Dove Common Tody-Flycatcher
Crimson-fronted Parakeet Social Flycatcher
White-crowned Parrot Barred Becard
Costa Rican Pygmy Owl Plain Wren
Green Hermit Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Stripe-throated Hermit Rufous-capped Warbler
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird Yellow-faced Grassquit
Violet Sabrewing Sooty-faced Finch
Brown Violetear Black-cowled Oriole
Green Violetear Yellow-bellied Siskin
Green-crowned Brilliant
Magnificent Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
White-bellied Mountain Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Volcano Hummingbird
Resplendent Quetzal
Red-headed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Spotted Barbtail
Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Mountain Elaenia
Torrent Tyrannulet
Tufted Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Golden-bellied Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Yellow-winged Vireo
Brown-capped Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Brown Jay
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Mountain Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Flame-throated Warbler
Tropical Parula
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilsons Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Black-cheeked Warbler
Zeledonia
Bananaquit
Common Bush-Tanager
Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Shining Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Slaty Flowerpiercer
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
White-naped Brush-Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Buff-throated Saltator
Eastern Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

10 Reasons to Visit Costa Rica for Birding in July and August

One of the great things about living in a place where the latitudes are closer to zero than a hundred is that temperatures are fairly stable. Where I live, I can already tell you what the thermometer is going to read tomorrow, next week, and next year (as long as the global climate doesn’t get too wacky before then). It’s going to range from 68 to about 88 degrees f. with fluctuations within those parameters being a function of time of day. Seasons are measured in rainfall here in Costa Rica so you don’t have to worry about shoveling snow in December. Nor do you need to worry about feeling the oven blast of a heat wave such as the one that is attempting to roast my friends and family up the northeastern USA. That’ s the first great reason for coming to Costa Rica now! Here are some other arguments for heading on down to quetzal-land during July and August:

  • It’s not blazing hot: Ok, so I already mentioned that but feel the need to reiterate because so many people conclude that Costa Rica is always hotter than home in the north because it’s so much further south. While the sun’s rays are definitely stronger and should be approached with caution, nope, it’s not hotter here than say New Jersey in the summer. The highest heat index occurs in places with about 90 or 91 with humidity on the central Pacific slope. Now that is surely hot but you won’t see crazy temps of 100 with humidity and you can always escape to the mountains where it’s a fair deal cooler.

Sooty Robins only live in the cool high elevation habitats of Costa Rica and Panama.

    • The Veranillo: “Veranillo” means “little summer” and refers to a week or two in July when it doesn’t rain as much as on the Pacific slope. We did have beautiful sunny days like that just last week but I think that was the extent of it. Nevertheless, it’s a little extra bonus for visiting around this time and this is reflected by the scheduling of several birding tours.
    • Wandering frugivores: It’s important to bird in the right habitat when looking for certain birds but it’s also nice when various seriously cool frugivores disperse in search of fruity food. This means that if you find a fruiting fig or Lauraceous tree, you might also find a wandering bellbird, Turquoise or Lovely Cotinga, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and who knows what else. Although you can’t expect to see those species, all of them seem to kind of wander a bit at this time of the year…

    A Turquoise Cotinga from Rincon de Osa.

      • Oilbirds: Yes, as in the big weirdo nocturnal things that are crazy about oily fruits! One or more were recently seen on a night hike in Monteverde and have been found pretty much on an annual basis there and have shown up at other spots between now and the next few months. Although this could also be placed in the “wandering frugivores” category, it merits its own special mention. Sure, they are easier to see in other places but wouldn’t it be cool to say that you found an Oilbird in Costa Rica?
      • No wintering species to deal with: Ok, so if you are not from North America, that would be something you would happily deal with but for those of us who have already had our fair share of Yellow Warblers, we tend to be more interested in the resident species. Shorebirds are showing up so you might see a few of them but that possibility can be avoided by hanging out in the rainforest and looking for (cursing at) antpittas.
      • Cloudy weather: I have said it before and will keep on preaching that cloudy weather is better for tropical birding! Although a sunny morning gives you better chances at seeing hawk-eagles and some other raptors, the forest is going to be pretty quiet for much of the day. Contrast that with cloudy or misty conditions and the tropical forest seems to be alive with birds! It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!! My best days in tropical forest at any elevation have always been on cloudy days. For example, a few of my memorable misty mornings have included a light morph Crested Eagle that flew over a Peruvian Amazonian clay lick covered with hundreds of parrots and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. They flew into the air while a pair of Red and green Macaws flew above the eagle and screamed their heads off. Talk about overload. Twas another memorable misty morning on the entrance road to Mindo, Ecuador road when I saw something like 110 species including Andean Cock of the Rock and several White-throated Quail Doves walking right on the road. I have spent more than one fine cloudy day on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve in Costa Rica when birds stayed active kind of all day long. We had to pull ourselves away from the birds to eat lunch. Not all cloudy days in Costa Rica are like that but the sunny ones sure aren’t. Oh, and it’s cloudy here just about every day in July and August.

      The road to Manuel Brenes on a misty day.

        • But what about the rain?: Yes, it does rain more right now but it won’t ruin a trip, there’s a higher degree of bird activity on account of cloudy weather, it’s cooler, and you can also get rained out on the Caribbean slope during the dry season months.
        • Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds: You will see them with the same frequency as other months and they will look just as cool!

        Fiery-throated Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.

        Volcano Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.

          • Scarlet Macaws will also be just as easy to see: These crazy, colorful birds are doing quite well in Costa Rica thanks to measures to protect and reintroduce them.

          Scarlet Macaws!

            • The trogons won’t be going anywhere either: Quetzals are actually here at all times of the year and not just during the dry season. Visit good habitat for these eye-stunning creatures and you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you can find the fruiting trees they like. The gorgeous Gartered Trogon should be easy enough to see too.

            A beautiful male Gartered Trogon.

            Resplendent Quetzal with a tasty avocado fruit.

              That’s enough for now. It’s time for me to take advantage of this cloudy weather and go birding in Costa Rica.

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              Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

              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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              biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Hummingbirds middle elevations

              Birding El Toucanet Lodge, Costa Rica

              Two weekends ago, I finally got the chance to experience El Toucanet Lodge near Copey de Dota, Costa Rica. This highland birding site has popped up on the Costa Rican birding grapevine on a number of occasions so I was enthused about birding there while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. I have guided a number of birders who have enthralled me with tales of El Toucanet’s exciting hummingbird action, easy views of quetzals, great food, and quality hospitality. After staying there, I echo their sentiments and definitely recommend the place when birding the Talamancas.

              birding Costa Rica

              The majority of birders get their fill of high elevation birding in Costa Rica at Savegre Mountain Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota. Since the oak forests there are more accessible than at El Toucanet, you can’t go wrong with birding at Savegre Mountain Lodge, but it’s also more expensive. For a more moderately priced option, El Toucanet is $30 cheaper per night on average and is situated at a lower elevation with drier forest that turns up an interesting suite of species. In addition to good birding around the hotel, birders who come with a rental vehicle will find it to be a good site to use as a base for birding higher elevations.

              At the lodge itself, two hummingbird feeders were enough to entertain us with views of the following species:

              Violet Sabrewing

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              Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

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              Green Violetear

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              Magenta-throated Woodstar

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              Scintillant Hummingbird

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              Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

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              and the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

              birding Costa Rica

              There were also camera shy Green-crowned Brilliants, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and in flowering Ingas on the property, a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds. White-throated Mountain-Gems, and Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds seen at higher elevations gave us a respectable total of thirteen hummingbirds species seen during our stay.

              On the non-hummingbird side of page, some of the highlights at the lodge and in nearby, similar habitats were Dark Pewee (common), Barred Becard (fairly common), Spotted Wood-Quail (heard only although they sometimes show up at the lodge), Collared Trogon, Black and white Becard (very uncommon species in Costa Rica), and Rough-legged Tyrannulet. Much to my chagrin, this last bird was also a heard only as it would have been a lifer! I tried calling it in but the bird just wouldn’t come close enough to see it- all the more reason to head back up there!

              Flame-colored Tanagers were fairly common and came to the lodge feeders once in a while

              birding Costa Rica

              but the lodge namesake seemed to be pretty uncommon. We still saw a few Emerald Toucanets but not as many as I had expected; maybe they are more common at other times of the year or are down in numbers like the Resplendent Quetzal. As with other areas in Costa Rica, the wacky fruiting season seems to have had an impact upon quetzal numbers so it took us a few days to actually see one. This is in contrast to the norm at El Tocuanet whereby guests often view more than one of these fancy birds on the daily quetzal tour (free for guests).

              birding Costa Rica

              A Resplendent Quetzal near El Toucanet being resplendent.

              One of our best birdies during our visit was Silver-throated Jay. This tough endemic needs primary highland oak forest and, at El Tocuanet, is only regularly found at higher elevations where the road to Providencia flattens out. It was nice to get this rarity for the year even if it was a pain to get clear views of it in the densely foliaged crowns of massive, moss-draped oaks. That same area also hosted three or four calling, unseen Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, the aforementioned high elevation hummingbirds, and a mixed flock highlighted by Buffy Tuftedcheeks. We also had our weirdest bird of the trip in that area- a Magnificent Frigatebird! If it wanted to masquerade as an American Swallow-tailed Kite, those raptors weren’t buying it and demonstrated their discontent by dive-bombing the modern day Pterodactyl.

              We also had calling quetzals around there, and at night, heard Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. During our after dark excursion, we tried for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet but didn’t get any response. Maybe it occurs at higher elevations? Maybe it just doesn’t like birders? No matter because I am going to get that feathered gnome before 2011 comes to an end!

              Our final morning was when we got the quetzal (thanks to the owners son Kenny who whistled it in) in addition to being our best morning of birding. Streak-breasted Treehunter hung out at a nesting hole (burrow) in a quarry. Barred Becard and bathing Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers entertained in the same area. Tufted Flycatchers, migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Dark Pewee were sallying off perches like jumping jack flash, and Yellow-bellied Siskins did what all birds should do-

              birding Costa Rica

              sing from exposed, eye level perches for long periods of time at close distances. Challenges are OK but relaxed, easy birding is always better!

              One drawback to birding near El Toucanet is that hunting still occurs in the area. We didn’t see any guys with guns or floppy eared, baying dogs, but we were told that locals do hunt in the Los Santos Forest Reserve (illegally). I suspected as much because of the flighty behavior of birds in the area (except at El Toucanet where they know they are safe). Even so, aside from making it a bit more challenging to watch birds close up, I doubt that it affects the birding all that much. Black Guans are probably more difficult to see but you may still have a good chance for them when birding the long road through Providencia and the highway. Much of this underbirded road cuts through beautiful forest. If you have the time and vehicle, please bird it and let us know what you see! I plan on surveying the road sometime this year and will blog about it.

              In the meantime, check out El Toucanet! I bet the area around the lodge holds more surprises, the fireplace is certifiably cozy, the food very good, and the owners as nice as can be.

              Here was a very cool surprise that I ran into just next to the lodge- my lifer Godson’s Montane Pit-Viper!

              birding Costa Rica

              Categories
              Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope high elevations

              More Updates on Birding Costa Rica: Irazu and Quebrada Gonzalez

              Once again, this post will be an imageless one as I am still awaiting a replacement part for my tripod (I need it for digiscoping). Nevertheless, I hope that readers will still find this fresh out of the field information of use. Since my last post, I have done a few trips to Irazu and Quebrada Gonzalez. Windy and misty weather has made the birding challenging but good stuff was still espied through our trusty binoculars.

              Some Irazu National Park birding updates: This continues to be a reliable site for Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. On Friday, we had one right on the dusty road between Rancho Redondo and LLano Grande. Looking like an exotic, lost chicken, upon our approach, it leaped off the road and into the underbrush. Using the car as a hide, we pulled up and quietly watched it fidget around the ground beneath a roadside hedge for several minutes. We were even close enough to see the red skin around its light colored eye! More were heard on the way up to the park and even calling from the paramo near the crater. The following day, birds were heard at close quarters on the road up to the national park but remained unseen.

              A pleasant surprise along the road up to the park not long after Llano Grande were two Tropical Mockingbirds that gave us flyby looks. I was under the inpression that we could only find this recent invader at golf courses so was happy to get this for my year list (already well past 400 species).

              Long-tailed Silkies and Black and Yellow Silky Flycatchers seem to be uncommon at the moment. Just a few were heard and seen over the course of two days.

              Resplendent Quetzal is present a the stream just south of the Volcano Museum. There are a few wild avocado trees there and at least one has fruit. Although we waited for at least an hour in vain at those trees on Friday, four or five birds were seen at the exact same time and spot on Saturday!

              Scintillant Hummingbird was present in flowering hedges between Rancho Redondo and Llano Grande on Friday.

              It almost goes without saying but Volcano Juncos are still easy to see up around the crater.

              There are also some local guides who can be hired for early morning birding and hiking in the paramo. They give short tours of the crater and can be contracted for this at the information booth near the crater but need to be contacted in advance for early morning birding. Here is their website.

              Quebrada Gonzalez updates:  As we left the Central Valley on Sunday, misty weather in the mountains made me wonder if we would have to cancel due to constant, birdless rain. Luckilly, though, the sun was shining in the foothills and it was a fantastic morning. The rain did catch up with us by 10 a.m. but until then, the birding was VERY GOOD. After watching a sloth in the parking lot, it wasnt long before we were watching a group of busy Tawny-crested and Carmiols Tanagers as they foraged in the undergrowth. A dozen of so Emerald Tanagers quickly followed and provided us with excellent looks just as activity started to pick up. Tawny-capped Euphonia, Wedge-billed Wodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, and Black-faced Grosbeaks were seen but a nice sounding mixed flock led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager was just a bit too far off into the forest to see wel. 

              Since Nightingale Wrens were singing nearby, I decided to make an attempt at an imitation and lo and behold, one of those extra drab, tiny-tailed birds popped up on a low branch and let us watch him from ten feet away for about ten minutes! Definitely the best looks I have ever had at this major forest skulker. As it sang, it quivered its little tail a mile a minute (a video of that performance might have been a contendor for some obscure film prize)!

              Not long after the performance of the Nightingale Wren, I heard an exciting sound: the song of Northern Barred Woodcreeper and calls of Bicolored Antbirds. This could only mean one thing: ANTSWARM! We couldnt see the birds from the trail so we crept about 12 feet into the forest to where they were shaking the vegetation and our patience was rewarded with beautiful views of Bicolored, Spotted, and Ocellated Antbirds, several Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and…Black-crowned Antpitta! Despite its larger size, the antpitta was remarkably inconspicuous and only gave us a few good, prolonged looks. The ground-cuckoo didnt show while we watched but I wouldnt be surprised if one made an appearance at some future antswarm occasion. Strangly enough, although we heard Northern Barred Woodcreeper, this antswarm lover remained unseen.

              Of course, while we were watching the answarm, all the other birds in the forest seemed to become active as well. Lattice-tailed Trogon, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang nearby and a huge canopy flock moved through the crowns of the trees. At one point, I decided that we should leave the swarm to try for the canopy flock but they turned out to be too high up in the trees to see well so we watched more 0f the antswarm until raindrops started to fall. A break in the rain gave us beautiful looks at White-ruffed Manakin but then it poured for the rest of the day. Well, I assume it rained the rest of the time because after leaving to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant in the lowlands, we decided to take advantage of the drier weather and had good birding in the Rio Blanco area. Oddly enough, best bird there was a toss-up between Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (rare winter resident) and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

              A short stop at El Tapir on the way back turned up Green Thorntail, Violet-headed Hummingbirds, and brief looks at a male Snowcap to give us around 120 species identified for a darn good day of birding in Costa Rica.

              I am headed back to Quebrada Gonzalez on Sunday. I hope the rains stay away and that the birds cooperate!

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              Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations sites for day trips weather

              Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

              Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

              This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

              The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

              Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

              Birding Costa Rica

              Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

              Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

              1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

              2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

              3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

              Birding Costa Rica

              A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

              Birding Costa Rica

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              I love the dark green nape!

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              This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

              Birding Costa Rica

              a Resplendent Quetzal!

              First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

              Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

              Birding Costa Rica

              It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

              Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

              Birding Costa Rica

              Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

              As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

              Birding Costa Rica

              Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

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              A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

              Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

              The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

              A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

              After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

              It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

              Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

              Birding Costa Rica

              The one sunny spot on Irazu.

              Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

              These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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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.

              Costa Rica birding

              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,

              birding Costa Rica

              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.

              birding Costa Rica

              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 identification issues

              Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

              Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

              In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

              Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

              In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

              The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

              Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

              violaceous trogon1

              and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

              Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

              Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

              Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

              Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

              Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

              Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

              Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

              Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

              Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

              Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

              Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

              Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

              Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

              Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

              Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

              Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

              Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

              Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

              Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

              Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

              White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

              Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.