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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding Update for June- Tapanti Birding, Yellow-bellied Seedeater in Central Valley, better access to Volcan Tenorio

Here is a hodgepodge of news items and updates related to birding in Costa Rica from this past month. They include things I have heard through the local birding grapevine, what I have noticed in local newspapers, and my own experiences:

Tapanti National Park birding on Monday– The Orosi Valley and Tapanti National Park were typically good for birding. I always like going to a place where I can get three saltator species in the same tree (what birder doesn’t?), hear the double toot call of Rufous-breasted Antthrush emanating from forested hillsides, and maybe even get a lifer or new addition to my Costa Rica list. You never know what will show up in the biodiverse forests of Tapanti but you always know that you are in for something good. Although I didn’t get my lifer White-fronted/ Zeledon’s/Rough-legged Tyrannulet nor add Lanceolated Monklet to my CR list, while guiding there yesterday, we got nice looks at a male White-winged Tanager, saw more than one Golden-bellied Flycatcher, enjoyed the antics of Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, and admired several Elegant Euphonias. The person I was guiding also caught a glimpse of a male Yellow-eared Toucanet on the Oropendola Trail (I have never seen this uncommon species at Tapanti!).

Costa Rica birding

We also saw a pair of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers coming to the ground to feed a hidden fledgling.

Since Tapanti doesn’t open until 8am (I know- what’s up with that?!?!), we started out around Cachi and made a few stops on the way to pick up brush-finches, saltators, White-lined Tanager, and other coffee plantation birds. Once we got to the park, sunny weather kept things a bit on the down low but we still did alright, and once it clouded over, the mixed flock activity picked up. Notable was the dearth of flowering plants which resulted in no hummingbirds! Well, there were a few, but except for Green Hermit, they were just unidentified flybys. A nice day overall in any case and we still managed 86 species.

On a side note, the marshy habitat around Cachi Lake looks promising. I’m not sure about access but will be investigating it to hopefully get Masked Duck- my neotropical nemesis bird!

Yellow-bellied Seedeater in the Central Valley– Someone found a pair of this south Pacific slope species near a town about 6 miles north of the airport. This might be the first record for the Central Valley and is actually not too far from my house so I might go look for it. Not sure how they ended up there but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were cagebirds that had escaped from their dismal prisons. You never know, they could still be wild birds, but since few to no other Yellow-bellied Seedeaters have been reported between there and areas near the Osa, I am inclined towards the escapee hypothesis. Oh yes there are caged birds in Costa Rica- I routinely hear several seedeaters, grassquits, and even Golden-browed Chlorophonia calling from a house not too far from mine. Every single one was taken from the wild-how I would love to free them.  Especially discouraging was recently seeing White-collared Seedeater and two Yellow-bellied Siskins in cages at a house near Cachi on Monday. Here we have a place where there are plenty of wild birds found right around the house and yet they had two species that have disappeared from many areas in Costa Rica due to the cagebird trade.

Better access road to Volcan Tenorio National Park- In today’s “La Nacion”, one of Costa Rica’s national newspapers, there was a brief news item that talked about the inauguration of a new access road to Volcan Tenorio. The road is called “Las Aguellas” and connects Bijagua to the national park. Bijagua already has a couple roads that head up that way so I don’t know if this is an existing road that has been improved, or a brand new one. Whatever it is, this is exciting news because Volcan Tenorio has some of the best birding in Costa Rica (think Heliconias Lodge). I know, you hear that now and then (and I am guilty of making that statement), but I can’t emphasize enough how good the birding is in that area. The recipe of dry, wet, lowland, and middle elevation along with a healthy dash of high quality forest makes Volcan Tenorio and Bijagua one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. Within a half hour drive of Bijagua,  you can get all 6 species of motmots, all 5 species of tinamous, at least 10 species of owls (maybe more), and tough birds such as hawk-eagles, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Sharpbill, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, and more. Yep, a good place to base yourself when birding Costa Rica. Needless to say, I am eager to check out the new road.

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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.

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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.