Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.
It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.
A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.
This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.
Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.
Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.
More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:
Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else
I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.
If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).
From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.
When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.
At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.
Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.
While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.
Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.
Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.
Bird Photography in Costa Rica
You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.
Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.
Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!
After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.
Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica
If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.
After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.
Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.
Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.
No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.
To learn more about birding routes in Costa Rica, sites, and how to find and identify more birds, prepare for your trip with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!