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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

Exciting New Birding Route near Varablanca, Costa Rica

Varablanca, Costa Rica is a village situated on a mountain pass between two volcanoes; Poas and Barva. Head up into the patchy high elevation forests of those mountains and you have a fair chance of connecting with most of Costa Rica’s signature highland species. Back down at the pass, though, much of the area has been converted into pasture. Meadowlarks and Rufous-collared Sparrows abound but they can’t compare to cloud forest species such as Lovely Cotingas, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and Black-breasted Wood-Quail.  The chlorophonia and wood quail still occur in the area but it’s hard to access their forest haunts. As for the cotinga, they have been recorded around Varablanca in the past but haven’t been seen in that area for several years (as far as I know). I suspect that those shiny turquoise and purple birds still occur in small numbers but once again, the difficulty in accessing contiguous forest presents a volcano-sized challenge in finding them.

From Varablanca, the main road descends to Cinchona of earthquake and hummingbird fame.  It eventually reaches the Caribbean lowlands and continues on to the Sarapiqui area. Even with a fair bit of deforestation, various protected sites make this general route a veritable bonanza for birds. Since the hefty Cinchona earthquake of 2009, though, accessing good middle elevation forest has been a challenge. A fair percentage of the forest in the nearby canyon was destroyed by landslides and there is little free, accessible habitat along the road. The trails at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens do provide access to forest but I just feel funny about paying $30 to simply walk around and watch birds.

Fortunately, there is another road that you can take and the birding looks to be very promising indeed. In fact, after a trip along said road on Saturday, I don’t exaggerate in naming it the best, unknown birding area in Costa Rica. I haven’t heard of anyone birding this road yet and would never have visited the place if Steve Semanchuk hadn’t mentioned it as an access road to Virgen del Socorro on Bird Forum. Thanks to Steve, Susan Blank and I did a recon trip on Saturday and it turned out to be much better than I had hoped. The route in question is the San Rafael de Varablanca road. It’s signed as such and is the only clearly visible route that leaves from the Varablanca- Cinchona- San Miguel road. The only downside to this road is that it requires 4-wheel drive. It’s actually not that bad, just that there are a couple parts where a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have a bit of trouble. On a side note, the near absence of traffic, beautiful scenery, and avian action make it perfect for mountain biking.

This “new” birding road starts maybe 2-3 ks (?) after Varablanca (where the road to Poas intersects with the road to Cinchona) and heads off to the east. It goes steeply down to a river and then up and over partly forested hills until going right along the western edge of Braulio Carillo National Park (!). It eventually heads down through a fair-sized area of quality middle elevation forest before reaching deforested lands once again near Virgen del Socorro. At that point, you could continue on through the old Virgen del Socorro birding site before meeting up again with the main road that connects San Miguel and Cinchona. On Saturday, we did just that and even spent a couple hours in the Caribbean lowlands.

birding Costa Rica

What some of this birding road looks like.

On the upper part of the road, we passed near patches and riparian zones with cloud forest that held Prong-billed Barbets, Ruddy Treerunners, Ochraceous Wrens, Yellow-thighed Finch, Collared Trogon, and many other species typical of this habitat and elevation (probably 1,200- 1,500 meters). Although we didn’t record any quetzals, there are definitely in the area along with lots of other uncommon species. Torrent Tyrannulets were common along the streams and we caught a glimpse of a Green-fronted Lancebill.

birding Costa Rica

Tufted Flycatcher was another very common species.

When the road goes along the edge of the national park, much of the vegetation appeared to be growing back but it was still good for birds. We had a nice mixed flock in that area with Yellow-thighed Finch, White-naped Brush-Finch, Golden-winged Warbler, and several other species. We also had Collared Trogon there along with Coppery-headed Emeralds and Dark Pewee.

Lower still, we got more excited when we began to drive through beautiful middle elevation forest. I suspect that the elevation was around 1,000 meters and even though it was mid-morning, the birding was almost non-stop. Red-headed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, and Slate-colored Grosbeak were heard while a variety of tanagers, White-ruffed Manakin, and White-crowned Manakin were seen. Other highlights were Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner (kind of rare in Costa Rica).

The vistas of the forested canyon looked ideal for finding some quality raptor such as a Solitary Eagle or Barred Hawk but we saw very few soaring birds of prey. Perched raptors were pretty good though with Broad-winged Hawk, White Hawk, and a very cooperative Bat Falcon.

birding Costa Rica

I love this bird because it didn’t fly away when we stopped the car.

Down at the old Virgen del Socorro site, things were pretty quiet (expected on a sunny 11 am). The forest still looked pretty good on the eastern side of the road but most of the forest at the former monklet site and along the western side of the road was secondary in nature (wiped out by the earthquake). Nevertheless, it probably still holds some surprises and it wouldn’t be out of the question for monklets to still live in the area. Although no diminutive puffbirds answered my monklet imitations (they have done so in Ecuador), we saw a young Barred Forest-Falcon and Immaculate Antbird at a roadside antswarm.

One of the best things about the road was the sheer quiet of the place. We saw a few people but maybe 2-3 other vehicles total (!). I hope to survey it during breeding season to see if Lovely Cotinga and umbrellabird occur as the area looks ideal for these birds and offers enough canopy vantage points to see them if they are around.

As long as you have a four wheel drive vehicle, this would be a great route to take to Sarapiqui. After seeing some choice middle elevation species in the morning, you could take a left at the Cinchona-San Miguel road and go back uphill for a few kilometers for lunch at the  Mirador de Colibries Hummingbird Cafe. This is located on the site of the original Cinchona cafes of birding fame and is still pretty good for hummingbirds and a fair number of species that visit their fruit feeders.

Here is our species list (104 total) from Varablanca to Virgen del Socorro for Saturday, October 8th:

Black-breasted Wood Quail-h
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
BV
TV
Broad-winged Hawk
Barred Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
White Hawk
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-crowned Parrot
Common Pauraque
Green Hermit
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Green-fronted Lancebill
Green Violetear
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet-h
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan-h
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Ruddy Treerunner
Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
Olivaceous Woodcreeper-h
Spotted Woodcreeper-h
Brown-billed Scythebill-h
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Immaculate Antbird
Paltry Tyrannulet
Mountain Elaenia
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet-h
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Olive-striped Flcycatcher
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Torrent Tyrannulet
Bright-rumped Attila
Dark Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
White-crowned Manakin
Red-eyed Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Bay Wren-h
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren-h
Nightingale Wren-h
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-headed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-faced Solitaire
Mountain Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Tropical Parula
Louisiana Waterthrush
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Bananaquit
Golden-crowned Warbler
Common Bush Tanager
Blue and gold Tanager
Black and yellow Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Slaty Flowerpiercer
White-naped Brush-Finch
Sooty-faced Finch-h
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Black-striped Sparrow-h
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Slate-colored Grosbeak-h
Eastern Meadowlark-h
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Black-breasted Wood Quail-h
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
BV
TV
Broad-winged Hawk
Barred Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
White Hawk
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-crowned Parrot
Common Pauraque
Green Hermit
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Green-fronted Lancebill
Green Violetear
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet-h
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan-h
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Ruddy Treerunner
Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
Olivaceous Woodcreeper-h
Spotted Woodcreeper-h
Brown-billed Scythebill-h
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Immaculate Antbird
Paltry Tyrannulet
Mountain Elaenia
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet-h
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Olive-striped Flcycatcher
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Torrent Tyrannulet
Bright-rumped Attila
Dark Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
White-crowned Manakin
Red-eyed Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Bay Wren-h
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren-h
Nightingale Wren-h
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-headed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-faced Solitaire
Mountain Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Tropical Parula
Louisiana Waterthrush
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Bananaquit
Golden-crowned Warbler
Common Bush Tanager
Blue and gold Tanager
Black and yellow Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Slaty Flowerpiercer
White-naped Brush-Finch
Sooty-faced Finch-h
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Black-striped Sparrow-h
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Slate-colored Grosbeak-h
Eastern Meadowlark-h
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.