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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.

birding Costa Rica

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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Introduction middle elevations

Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project, Costa Rica

For the past two years, every time I have seen Sara Clark on a Birding Club of Costa Rica field trip, she has asked me when I was going to come up and visit her farm/reforestation project in the mountains above Grecia. Last week, I finally got the chance to accept her invite, walk the hilly trails of her land, and survey the local avifauna. Because Sara was so wonderfully kind to give us a ride up to her place, I was also able to bring  my wife and daughter.

The trip up to Finca Dos Lados was a typical one for rural areas of the Central Valley. On paved roads that formerly felt the heavy wheels of painted, wooden ox-carts, we twisted and turned our way up and down hills and over small bridges on our way to our destination. The scenery was typical for the western central valley; fields of sugar cane, rows of coffee bushes (some shaded by a few trees, others blazed by the tropical sun), lush, wooded ravines, small towns, and “development”.

Just about the only forest left in the central valley are riparian remnants because of the tremendous pressures that a growing population has placed on the land and past government incentives to “improve” the land by actively deforesting it. The fruits of this sad “improvement” were all too apparent as we ascended a ridge to Sara’s place from Sarchi and passed near eroded cattle pastures with few cows and even fewer trees. Forests used to cover those slopes. Moist tropical forests with Three-wattled Bellbirds, trogons, Long-tailed Manakins, monkeys, and more. Now the barren slopes hosted non-native, domesticated ungulates, their parasites, and not much else because landowners in the area didn’t know of any other way to use the land.

On a bright note, the days of encouragement to “tame” the land in Costa Rica by turning it into an unwholesome pseudo-savanna are a thing of the past. Nowadays, the incentives are for reforestation and maintaining the forest already growing on your land. The government doesn’t pay out a huge amount for doing this but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Finca Dos Lados is in this program and has planted hundreds (maybe thousands?) of trees including several wild avocados (the preferred food of Resplendent Quetzals). Because Sara’s land is mostly growing back from bare pasture, there isn’t a huge number of bird species present. There are more than when non-native grass was one of the only plants around though, and there will be a lot more in the future since her land acts as one of the biological corridors between the forests of Volcan Poas and Juan Castro Blanco National Park.

Note the difference between Finca Dos Lados on the right(where reforestation is occurring), and neighboring land on the left (overgrazed by cows).

Here we are arriving at the entrance to Finca Dos Lados.

On the way in, we stopped at this shrine surrounded by vegetation that has grown up in just seven years. This was a birdy spot with Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Slate-throated Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, and of course the true to its name, Common Bush Tanager.

One of the many Common Bush Tanagers at Finca Dos Lados.

I don’t think the tanagers were the most common bird species though. That distinction, goes to the Mountain Elaenia.

Mountain Elaenias rule at Finca Dos Lados, Costa Rica. These small Empid-looking flycatchers were truly living large in the young second growth. I would say that around 70% of the birds I saw or heard were this species.

Other common birds were Red-billed and Band-tailed Pigeons.

Always nice to see a tree of Band-tailed Pigeons. As a kid, for me, this was one of those “western” birds that lived too far away in the coniferous forests of the west to even dream of seeing.

A closer look.

Near the pigeons, I was lucky to have this stunning Black-thighed Grosbeak pose for pictures.

Finca Dos Lados is set up nicely for researchers and volunteers who would like to help out, or carry out studies related to cloud forest regeneration or migration between the Pacific and Atlantic slopes. There are several bunk beds, a big kitchen, and several trails that access the continental divide and cloud forest on the Caribbean Slope. There are areas of primary forest although it takes a few hours of hiking to access it. I hope to survey those forests some day.

Standing on the continental divide.

Looking onto the Caribbean slope from the divide. I could hear either a Collared or Orange-bellied Trogon calling from the forest below. We also got glimpses of Zeledonia in this area.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers (such as the one above) were common here along with Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Flame-colored Tanager, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Sooty Robin, Yellow-thighed finch, Black and Yellow Silky, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Despite intently looking and listening, and being entertained by the duetting of Prong-billed Barbets that echoed throughout the valley during my stay, there weren’t any signs of bellbirds. With the number of fruiting trees that have been planted, though, future visitors to Finca dos Lados will probably get the chance to hear their loud, clanging calls.

Hopefully, Miranda will be one of them.