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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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Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).