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Birding Costa Rica central valley middle elevations preparing for your trip

Tapanti National Park is always worth a visit when birding Costa Rica

With so many excellent possibilities to choose from when birding Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide upon an itinerary. “Classic” sites like Sarapiqui, Monteverde, the Dota Valley, and Carara tempt with easy access, good infrastructure, and mouth watering trip reports. The biologically hyperactive Osa Peninsula, tall forests of Tortuguero, and monkey rich Santa Rosa National Park beckon to birders looking for a wilderness experience. Adventurous birders and naturephiles will be impressed with the fantastic birding and high diversity at sites located off the radar such as Heliconias Lodge, Hitoy Cerere, and Manzanillo.

No matter where you decide to focus birding time and energy when visiting Costa Rica, make room in the schedule for Tapanti National Park. At least a day but two or three would be even better. My reasons for getting excited about birding Tapanti and surroundings are probably why most birding tour companies include a visit to the lush forests of this middle elevation site:

  1. There are few other places in Costa Rica where you have a fair chance at seeing the likes of: White-bellied      Mountain-Gem, Green-fronted Lancebill, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scaled Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (good candidate for splitting from South American taxa), Black-banded Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Streaked Xenops, Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Lesser Elaenia, White-fronted Tyrannulet, Dark Pewee, Sharpbill, and White-winged Tanager.
  2. You also have a fair chance of seeing target species such as: Black Guan, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Violet Sabrewing, Green Thorntail, Red-headed Barbet, Prong-billed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, American Dipper, Azure-hooded Jay, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager,  Ochraceous Wren, and Elegant Euphonia.
  3. The park is easily accessible and there are various options for lodging within a twenty minute drive.
  4. Most of the birds can be seen along a wide, easily walked road through the park or along an easy, loop trail.
  5. Situated 2 kilometers from the park entrance, Kiri Lodge is a good place for lunch and has excellent bird feeding tables.

On a day trip to the park last weekend, my birder friend Susan and I didn’t come close to getting all of the above but we still had a great day of birding in beautiful surroundings. Here is a quick run-down of our day:

Susan picks me up in Santa Barbara de Heredia at 5 a.m. and off we go through the streets of the Central Valley on our way to Tapanti! Light traffic at dawn is a serious boon but twisting, winding roads and occasional lights and signs that tell us to stop make it an hour and a half drive. We both agree that we should have left at 4.

Scenery doesn’t become truly beckoning or beautiful until we decend into the Orosi Valley, take in huge draughts of fresh, country air, and listen to the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Black Phoebes, Brown Jays, Plain Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Yellow-faced Grasquits, and other birds that chip, sing, and call from surrounding coffee plantations.

Nearing the park, we stop at an inviting spot along the road with a brushy field on one side and a lush forest on the other.

birding Costa Rica

Hoping for migrants, I start up with the spishing as soon as I step out of the car and a few birds show up- three Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Wilsons Warblers, a couple of Tennessees, and one smart looking male Golden-winged Warbler. They are just as likely to have have arrived for the winter as they are migrants stopping for a “coffee break” on their way to more southerly haunts.

I was hoping that the brushy field would turn up a Lesser Elaenia or White-throated Flycatcher but Black Phoebe, Yellow-faced Grasquit, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat were the only birds that made an appearance. Nevertheless, it was a perfect place to just stand still, watch the sun begin to chase away the shadows, and listen to the dawn chorus. Birds in Costa Rica don’t sing as much during October but I still heard Bright-rumped Atilla, Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Brown Jays, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Immaculate Antbird, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush.

birding Costa Rica

This is the latter half of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

We continue past non-birdy sun coffee and stop just outside the park entrance where forest finally greets us on both sides of the road. This area is always productive and Saturday was no exception with Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers trooping through the treetops, Black-faced Solitaire and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush popping into view, and Tawny-capped Euphonias feeding on a branch that hung over the road.

birding Costa Rica

At 8 a.m. (opening time for the park), we went to the park entrance and the friendly ranger urged us to check out their exhibit of road killed animals. I stress “road killed animals” as opposed to “road kill” because the animals were stuffed and on display as opposed to being shown in sad, squashed, and mangled positions (although they had some gruesome pictures of this too). In their hope to educate visitors about biodiversity in the area and the hazards local fauna face on the roads, they showed a Tapir

birding Costa Rica

a Puma,

birding Costa Rica

and an Ocelot!

birding Costa Rica

Cases of ridiculous looking insects were also on display.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Just outside the ranger station, we ran into a nice flock of birds and got close looks at Red-headed and Prong-billed Barbets, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Brown-capped Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned, Rufous-capped, Black and White, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Elegant Euphonia, and more Common Bush Tanagers. Not with the flock but in the same area were Stripe-throated Hermit, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied Hummingbird.

I was also hearing Golden-bellied Flycatcher and Dark Pewee at this time but they stayed out of sight.

As we were on a mild-mannered mission to see antpittas, we drove up the road to the oddly named Oropendola Trail (because you don’t usually see them there) and crept down towards the river with the hopes that a Scaled Antpitta would bound into view. Just as we made a silent, ninja-like approach  to a suitable, wet-looking spot that looked like home for an antpitta, a park worker came happily bounding down the trail instead and foiled our plan. Ahh, but a trick was up our sleeve (actually in my backpack) and it came in the form of a Scaled Antpitta recording. I played the odd bubbling sound of this skulking king but despite our careful scanning of the undergrowth absolutely nothing was seen so we conceded defeat and moved on. The rest of the Oropendola Trail was quiet but we managed to pick up Slaty Antwren and got nice looks at Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant (it wasn’t nice enough to keep still for a photo).

Both feeling fit enough to scale the steep trail known as the “Arboles Caidos” (means “Fallen Trees” but should be called “Personas Caidos” (Fallen People) because of its gradient), we slowly walked up and into the old growth, crazily mossed cloud forests found along this trail. Our target here was the Ochre-breasted Antpitta. It has been seen on both trails at Tapanti but is espied more often on the Arboles Caidos. Lots of other good birds are also possible but the going sure is tough! Fortunately, you are more likely to see Black-banded Woodcreeper, antpittas, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush if you move along at a slow pace and do lots of sitting around and waiting (nearly required anyways if you haven’t been training for triathalons).

birding Costa Rica

A rough trail through the best of habitats.

I managed to get photos of Sooty-faced Finch but we saw few other birds (including of course the other antpitta) although I shouldn’t be surprised because in being there during the mid-morning, we were absurdly looking for birds at the quietest time of the day AND only spent an hour at most on the trail.

birding Costa Rica

Sooty-faced Finch- a regional endemic you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Back down to the car, we made our way to Kiri Lodge just outside of the park and ate fried chicken while watching the awesome action on their feeding table. Check my other post about that avian eye candy experience!

Still hoping for a hefty mixed flock, after lunch, we headed back into the park and stopped whenever we heard birds. A female Collared Trogon was turned up, more looks at Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush that were feeding with tiny Labidus sp. army ants, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and yes, we got a couple of mixed flocks.

The action was fast and furious (and who knows what was missed) but we got onto some good ones such as Streak-breasted Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, Barred Becard, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and Streaked Xenops.

Not long after, it began to rain and we started the trek back up into the concrete, paucity of trees, and “civilization” of the Central Valley after a much needed breath of fresh air and birds at Tapanti National Park.

Bird list from our day trip on October 23rd, 2010

Black Vulturea few
Turkey Vulturea few
Osprey (they like to hang out at the Kiri Lodge trout ponds)2
Broad-winged Hawk1
American Kestrel (my first for the year!)1
Spotted Sandpiper1
Red-billed Pigeonseveral
Crimson-fronted Parakeet6
Brown-hooded Parrot4
Green Hermit4
Stripe-throated Hermit1
Purple-crowned Fairy1
White-bellied Mountain-Gemseveral
Black-bellied Hummingbirdseveral
Green-crowned Brilliant1
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird1
White-collared Swiftseveral
Red-headed Barbet4 inside the park, 2 at the Kiri tables
Prong-billed Barbet4 inside the park
Collared Trogon1
Smoky-brown Woodpecker1 heard
Wedge-billed Woodcreeperseveral
Spotted Woodcreeper1
Tawny-throated Leaftosser1 heard
Streak-breasted Treehunter1
Lineated Foliage-gleaner1
Spotted Barbtailseveral
Red-faced Spinetailseveral
Rufous-breasted Antthrush1 heard
Immaculate Antbird2 heard
Slaty Antwren2
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo1 heard
Golden-bellied Flycatcher2 heard
Boat-billed Flycatcher1 heard
Dark Pewee1 heard
Black Phoebe4
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrantseveral
Slaty-capped Flycatcher3
White-ruffed Manakina few Heard
Barred Becard1
Blue and white Swallowseveral
Black-faced Solitaireseveral
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushseveral
Swainsons Thrushseveral
Clay-colored Thrushseveral
Black and yellow Silky Flycatcherseveral
Brown-capped Vireo1
Brown Jay5
House Wren2
Ochraceous Wren3
Band-backed Wren1
White-breasted Wood Wren1 heard
Gray-breasted Wood Wrenseveral Heard
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat2
Rufous-capped Warbler6
Three-striped Warbler4
Golden-crowned Warblerseveral
Black and white Warbler4
Black-throated Green Warbler1
Tennesee Warbler4
Chestnut-sided Warblerseveral
Golden-winged Warbler1
Common Bush Tanagerseveral
Blue gray Tanager2
Palm Tanager2
Spangle-cheeked Tanagerseveral
Silver-throated Tanagerseveral
Golden-hooded Tanager1
Summer Tanager1
Sooty-faced Finch1
Chestnut-capped Brush Finch1 heard
Yellow-faced Grasquitseveral
Tawny-capped Euphoniaseveral
Golden-browed Chlorophoniaseveral
Elegant Euphonia4
Baltimore Oriole4
Black-cowled Oriole1
Melodious Blackbird2
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley feeders Introduction middle elevations sites for day trips

Where to see Red-headed Barbets when birding Costa Rica: Kiri Lodge

Kiri Lodge. I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “lodge” I get these images and visions of a spacious cabin built of massive logs- something like Paul Bunyon’s mansion that could only have been constructed with old growth trees he himself cut down along with the profits he reaped from his mutant-like tree cutting prowess. The ceilings stretch up into the shadows and a permanently lit and crackling fireplace keeps the place as cozy as Grandma Bunyon’s on Thanksgiving. All the chairs are comfortable, a few heads of unfortunate herbivores hang from the walls, the air is consistently scented with apple pie, gingersnaps, or some other smell that one commonly associates with pot-pourri aisles in large, all purpose stores that could be the bane of modern civilization, AND all of the guests sport very comfortable smoking jackets even though they don’t smoke.

I would be surprised if I came across a “lodge” like this when birding Costa Rica (or anywhere on Earth) and am happy to report that Kiri Lodge soundly trounces my mental imagery with a better reality. Situated just outside of Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica, Kiri is essentially a small hotel with an extreme fondness for trout. Honestly, all it takes is one look at the menu in their small restaurant to see that these people love Rainbow Trout (or at least love to prepare them in a dozen different ways) so much that little else appears to be offered. The trout ponds out back are proudly advertised, visitors are encouraged to check out the fish, and it is hoped that you will catch some for your dinner at the restaurant.

The Kiri Lodge people are friendly enough to still serve you with a smile even if you don’t like trout and opt for fried chicken or a beef “casado” (a “casado” is an all purpose standard, tasty meal that usually consists of rice, beans, plantain, salad, vegetable, and beef, chicken, or fish).  For the birder, of far more importance than their penchant for trout is their friendly attitude about birds. They demonstrate this with hummingbird feeders and a fantastic bird-feeding table.

Because there are only two of them, the hummingbird feeders aren’t as buzzing with glittering and pugnacious activity as some other sites but if you watch long enough, Green-crowned Brilliants, Violet Sabrewings, and the local specialty known as the White-bellied Mountain-Gem will make appearances. Far better, however, is the feeding platform.

birding Costa Rica

The platform as it looked from my seat in the restaurant. If you look close you might make out Blue-gray tanagers (the blue bits), Clay-colored Robins (the clay bits), and a Great Kiskadee (the great yellow thing).

Costa Rica birding

And here is what it looked like through the scope.

While my birding friend Susan and I waited for our annual allotment of fried chicken accompanied by greasy fries, we were entertained by at least 10 species of birds that went nuts over chunks of papaya and huge, ripe plantains. The most common was Silver-throated Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Commonly seen in middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica, Silver-throated Tanagers are still best enjoyed up close at feeding tables.

Predominantly yellow, numerous, and smaller than other partakers of the papaya, these were kind of like the goldfinches of the bunch. They stayed out of the way of hungry Clay-colored Thrushes but still shared the table with them.

birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national bird getting ravenous with the papaya. Look how “long-headed” and curve-billed it looks compared to an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

When the Melodious Blackbird made an appearance, though, the Silver-throated Tanagers positively scattered and even the Clay-colored Thrushes left the table. Considering the pointed bill, hefty size, and scary demeanor, who can blame them.

Costa Rica birding

A Melodious Blackbird looking threatening.

birding Costa Rica

Only the rough and tumble Great Kiskadee held its ground against the blackbird.

Luckily for the birds (and us), the Melodious Blackbird was content with spending only as much time on the table as it took to wolf down a few choice chunks of papaya. Otherwise we may not have seen smaller and more brightly colored Baltimore Orioles,

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

a handsome Black-cowled Oriole,

birding Costa Rica

nor oohed and aahed over the sky blue of Blue-gray Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

If that blackbird hadn’t left, we might have also missed the clownish king of the bird feeding show; the Red-headed Barbet. As befits such a spectacular bird species, it only showed up after most of the other birds had made an appearance and even then hopped down to the side of the platform and scowled as if in disdain at having to share the table with such commoner things.

birding Costa Rica

“Egads! Why do I lower myself to share space with these Silver-throated Tanagers and dingy Clay-colored Robins!”

birding Costa Rica

“I mean just look at that thrush! Must they always be so maniacal when presented with an abundance of fruit?”

birding Costa Rica

“Their class-less behavior makes me want to look away in disgust!”

birding Costa Rica

“Keep your distance dirt colored heathen or I shall give thee a wallop with my stout bill”!

We also saw Red-headed Barbets in Tapanti that same morning but it’s always nice to casually get fantastic looks at such a funky looking bird while sitting down to lunch at such a birder friendly restaurant as that of Kiri Lodge.

big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

536 species so far for 2010 with two months to go

As always, I would love to do an official Big Year in Costa Rica. Slowly track my way up and down the hot, hilly terrain of the Osa while scanning the canopy and listening for distress calls of monkeys that would lead me to a Harpy Eagle. Maybe find a Red-throated Caracara or two (if they still roam the rainforests of Corcovado), or chance upon a Speckled Mourner in some massive mixed flock.

I would have raced over to Monteverde to add Oilbird to my 2010 list, shivered in the dark, high up on Cerro de la Muerte until an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl revealed itself, and birded off the beaten track at Hitoy Cerere to pick up Great Jacamar, Violaceous Quail-Dove, and Sulphur-rumped Tanager.

I would have stationed myself for a time on both coasts during both migrations to comb through waves of passerines and shorebirds in search of the expected as well as the unforeseen. I might even have braved a bout with sea-sickness to pick up the pelagics….on second thought, no I wouldn’t have subjected my wimpy inner ear to such punishment.

BUT, I would have certainly gone up north to pick up Elegant Trogon and Thicket Tinamou at Santa Rosa National Park, and would have scanned the marshes of Palo Verde National Park with the hope of espying a distant Jabiru through the heat waves, as well as getting Glossy Ibis, Snail Kite, and after the sun went down, White-tailed Nightjar.

Cost Rica birding

Wind-swept Guanacaste- Where to see Thicket Tinamous and Elegrant Trogons in Costa Rica

In short, I would love to spend a year exploring every brushy corner, wooded ravine, palm swamp, amazing rainforest, and mystical cloudforest found within the borders of Costa Rica BUT (in addition to such an endeavor being impossible), since that would require abandoning my family and becoming instantly rich (at least moderately),  I have opted for diligently keeping track of every bird species I identify by sight or sound when guiding, birding on my own, listening for nocturnal flight calls with cupped ears in my backyard, or involved in much more mundane activities such as driving my daughter to the babysitter.

Costa Rica birding

Cloud forest canopy at Monteverde, Costa Rica

Given that I do some birding at least once per week and still might get the chance to visit some of the places mentioned above before we switch our calendars over to 2011, my unofficial big year is coming along nicely (and much more comfortably than if  were camping and profusely sweating in the humid lowlands).

My latest species was Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow (also and perhaps more appropriately known as Cabanis Ground-Sparrow). I am pretty sure that I got a glimpse of one sans binoculars back in April but “pretty sure” doesn’t quite do it for the 2010 list.  Fortunately, this past Sunday, I was able to definitely mark it down for the year when an individual was spotlighted by the morning sun at the edge of a coffee plantation near my house. The view, lighting, and composition were so darn perfect that I of course didn’t have my camera with me. This species is apparently a strong proponent and practitioner of Murphy’s Law because although I got a recording of its call (and there are very few recordings of this taxon), I somehow managed to erase it the next day! Of course, it was the only recording that got banished into nothingness and I honestly have no idea how it happened.

I went back to the same site the following morning with camera at the ready but the ground-sparrow had hightailed it along with all of the Swainson’s Thrushes, migrant warblers, and vireos that had been happily chipping (and harshly cackling in the case of the vireos) from the vegetation the day before.

Here’s a a soundscape of birds from this site on the day of the ground-sparrow (October 17th):

santa barbara morning

Another recent addition to the 2010 list was a Streak-breasted Treehunter that popped into view after spishing resulted in an avalanche of curious birds in a forested ravine on the way up to Volcan Barva. I had my camera on that occasion but mist and shade combined forces to ensure that the only pictures coming out of that bastion of dimness  would have been grainier than a World War One documentary filmed at night.

Black-cheeked Warbler seen in the high-elevation forests of Volcan Barva was also a new one for the year and reflects how little birding I have done at high elevations in 2010 because this is a pretty easy bird to get. It’s hyperactive though so pictures are tough.

The ground-sparrow may have been 536 but even better was a Dickcissel that got ticked off for 2010 after one let out its rude-like, dry-rattle flight call as it winged its way over Santa Barbara de Heredia.

I kind of doubt that I will  break 600 for the year but I might come close if I can get in some shorebirding and focus on a hodgepodge of gettable target species, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron to name a few.

Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Christmas Count

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge has become known for being one of the better birding lodges in Costa Rica (and many say it is the best). It has received such accolades from guests who are on birding trips to Costa Rica for a number of reasons, among them such factoids as:

  • Bosque del Rio Tigre is located in one of the wildest, most biologically intense areas of the country- the forests of the Osa Peninsula. The forests of the Osa are thought to be older than other rainforests in southern Costa Rica because higher numbers of plant and animal species occur there compared to other forests on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Slope. A higher degree of endemism and rainfall in the Osa also supports the idea that this biological wonderland acted as a sanctuary or natural refuge for organisms adapted to wetter habitats when the overall climate of the region was drier. What this means for the visiting birder is days with 100 or more bird species, large mixed flocks, and lots of animals of the non-bird variety.
  • The lowland rain forests of Costa Rica’s “big toe” are the heart of a small endemic bird area that reaches its northern limits at Carara National Park and its southern limits near David in westernmost Panama. Birding in the soul of this endemic bird area at places like Bosque del Rio Tigre means views of one of Costa Rica’s few endemic bird species, the Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and a better chance than many other places for seeing target birds like the White-crested Coquette, endangered species such as Yellow-billed Cotinga and Mangrove Hummingbird, Baird’s Trogon, Turquoise Cotinga, Black-hooded Antshrike, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Beryl-crowned Hummingbird, and Fiery-billed Aracari.
  • Forests at Bosque del Rio Tigre are connected to that crown jewel of Costa Rican national parks known as Corcovado. Scarlet Macaws, large raptors, Great Currasows, and everything else associated with an intact lowland rainforest ecosystem are possible. Although you can’t expect to see a Harpy Eagle, the Osa is one the only places in Costa Rica where you still have a chance at glimpsing one.
  • The owners (Liz and Abraham Gallo) know where the birds are. They take guests to stake-outs of sexy species like White-tipped Sicklebill, Uniform Crake (who doesn’t want to see a crake in a uniform?), Yellow-billed Cotinga, and White-crested Coquette. The normally invisible Little Tinamou is also frequently seen as they come to the back of the kitchen area.
  • Speaking of the kitchen, the food is truly wonderful and has gotten just as much applause as the birding.

Bosque del Rio Tigre is certainly a top notch area for birding in Costa Rica but the real purpose of this post is to spread the word about their upcoming Christmas Count. A few have been held around the lodge in the past but Liz and Abraham are trying to make this an annual event to help promote conservation in and collect bird data for the Osa. This should come as no surprise as they have been involved with local conservation efforts since they opened and have become working hard at gathering data about and spurring efforts to study and conserve the Yellow-billed Cotinga.

And here is why I am announcing this on my blog: Participants are needed for the count!

It will take place on the 17th of December and counters can spend two nights at Costa Rica’s best birding lodge for discount prices. I’m not sure of the exact price but to find out and also learn more about the count, email the owners of Bosque del Rio Tigre. Family duties make it tough for me to get down to the Osa, but I sure hope to be on one of the 2010 counting teams!

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.

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

Birding Costa Rica during the 2010 rainy season

September to early December is always a rainy time in Costa Rica but this year is expected to be worse. Although El Nino will be taking a break from wreaking meteorological havoc on the region, we won’t luck out with dry weather like last year because La Nina has decided to show up and throw a massive, celestial pool party. Since her games with Costa Rica will involve dumping 60% more precipitation than usual for this time of year, we wish she would hold the festivities elsewhere. She’s gotta finish what she started however, so I think I better get an industrial-strength umbrella and become accustomed to getting wet. I also need to get used to birding in the rain because I’m not going to let the precipitation keep me from watching birds AND I’ll probably see more anyways!

It’s nice to keep dry but hot, sunny weather really is bad for birding in Costa Rica. Honestly, the birding norm for days with clear skies punctuated by a blazing-hot sun involves a couple hours of morning activity followed by a slooooooowww rest of the day until cloud cover gives some respite from “El Sol”. Raptors tend to fly more often on sunny days but overall, the birds seem to be on strike or influenced by Jimmy Buffet as they snooze for hours in their hidden, bird hammocks.

Sunny weather is much better for butterflies and you can also waltz through the rain forest without experiencing one drop of falling water but it becomes very difficult to see any birds. If you can manage binoculars in one hand and an umbrella in the other while it rains, however, you will see a lot more than on sunny days. Better yet, find a sheltered spot that has nice views of good habitat and scan the vegetation for perched birds, fruiting trees, and flowers. Sooner or later something cool will show up at such food source hotspots and when the rain slows down or stops, your field of view will suddenly be filled with birds that are hopping, flying, singing, and generally going nuts. I recall a day of birding at Tapanti last year when it was like this and bird activity was on the verge of being ridiculous. I mean Black-faced Solitaires were hopping out onto the road, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were racing through the treetops, Collared Trogons were coming down low and looking at us with curiosity, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle made an appearance….yeah, it was pretty awesome!

Although heavy rains can become a bore (especially when riverbanks overflow and roads get washed out), birding in Costa Rica can still be good and is often more productive than sunny days, especially so when skies are overcast. On days like that, it’s like a birdy morning all day long and even shy things like quail-doves and antpittas are more active. In fact, it’s like that today and I wish I was out birding because as I write this, Melodious Blackbirds, Clay-colored Robins, and Rufous-collared Sparrows are calling just out my window and I bet there’s a lot of other overcast-inspired avian activity going on. I hope it’s like this on Sunday because I plan on birding the Volcan Barva area.

If you are headed to Costa Rica sometime between now and December, my advice is to be prepared for the rain but also to get ready for seeing more birds throughout the day. It’s also a good idea to keep updated on the weather and road conditions (more or less easily done by asking staff at hotels, reading the Tico Times, or watching local, evening news on channels 6,7, or 11). I should also add that the Caribbean Slope is not expected to receive much more rain than usual because La Nina will be carrying out her bucket brigade on the Pacific Slope.