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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations Pacific slope preparing for your trip

Costa Rica Finally has a Canopy Tower!

As you drive around the winding mountain roads of Costa Rica on your way to Monteverde, La Fortuna, or Sarapiqui, you won’t help but the notice signs that state “canopy here!” “longest canopy!”, and even “fly like superman on our canopy!” Some of these odd advertisements happen to be the size of billboards and also show smiling, helmet-wearing individuals who lie prone and with their arms stretched out as they apparently zoom through the air high above the ground. Before you come to the conclusion that these are tragic, photographic captures of deranged people moments before the laws of gravity dish out inevitable justice, or that they are some sort of abstract anti-drug message, your anxiety will be alleviated upon noticing that these people are actually attached to some sort of harness.

“So this must be the zipline thing”, you may say to yourself as you swerve to avoid yet another pedestrian. If you are a birder or biologist, you may also find yourself wondering what on Earth “canopy” has to do with “ziplining”. After all, isn’t the canopy that wonderful, mysterious, and mostly inaccessible part of the rainforest that harbors a big chunk of biodiversity? Isn’t it the arboreal realm of glittering cotingas, weird woodpeckers, and strange gliding herps? Of course the canopy is this and so much more which makes the hijacking of this term for an “adventure activity” a silly shame. Ziplining activities occur up there in the canopy but you don’t get the chance to investigate your surroundings while rushing through the treetops along a cable. No, to get a glimpse into the rainforest canopy, you need to get up there (preferably above the tree crowns) and just hang out. Scan the sea of trees with binoculars and don’t forget the scope to check out the distant raptors, parrots, and tanagers that also like to hang out in the treetops.

The 100 million colones question, of course, is “How does one manage to climb 100 feet or more up into the trees”? This is then quickly followed up by another question of equally high value: “And how do you avoid falling out of the tree once you get up there”? There is, however, one response that comfortably answers both of these questions: “a canopy tower”. With these awesome structures, you typically walk up a bunch of steps to access platforms at different levels of the forest which results in excellent views of a bunch of birds whose identification would have otherwise been a question of silhouettes and calls. As much as some of us birders like to be challenged, we always opt for the nice, easy views that a canopy tower provides. No more warbler neck, and you just might squeal with glee when Blue-headed Parrots fly too close for binoculars, Gray-headed Kites flap along at eye level, and especially when you have to ID tanagers by the pattern on their backs!

editors note- I’m not kidding about the “squeal with glee” thing. I have been witness to this and other, cruder exclamations of amazement at canopy towers in Tambopata, Peru.

The irony of all of this is that even though exploration of the rainforest canopy was pioneered in Costa Rica by David Perry, and Costa Rica is visited by thousands of birders, there aren’t any canopy towers! Ziplines have cropped up like an invasive plant and there are at least two tram rides that gondola you up into the canopy, but the nearest canopy tower has been the eco-lodge of the same name in Panama. This Costa Rican catch-22 has all changed, however, thanks to the San Vito Birding Club. Not willing to wait around for the national parks to build a canopy tower, they actually raised enough funds to build one of their own! I haven’t been there yet but this video shows what truly appears to a bona fide canopy tower ripe for birding!

It’s bound to be a good site for raptors, getting close looks at canopy flocks, and might turn out to be the most reliable site in the country for Turquoise Cotinga. So, if the excellent birding at the Wilson Botanical Garden wasn’t enough to merit fitting this site into your Costa Rican birding trip, it sure is now!

Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip

Recent Birding at Tapanti National Park

It’s always exciting to visit Tapanti National Park because of the avian possibilities that haunt the mossy forests of this middle elevation site. Rarities that have been seen there include Red-fronted Parrotlet, Lanceolated Monklet, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Streaked Xenops, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, and Sharpbill. Does this mean that you will any of these “quality” bird species? Absolutely not! BUT if you spend a few days intensely birding the park, I would say that you have a fair chance of seeing at least half of the bird species listed above. I wish I had the time to intensely survey Tapanti over the course of a week and hang out with rare birds, but since I simply don’t have the time, I make do with day visits.

This means that my chances of seeing rarities are diminished, but a day visit to this biodiverse park always turns up good birds anyways. Black Guan makes a regular appearance,  Black-faced Solitaires and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes provide background music, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants complain from hidden perches in the forest, Prong-billed and Red-headed Barbets hang out in fruiting trees, Green Thorntail and Black-bellied Hummingbirds are fairly common, Collared Trogon is always cool to see, Dark Pewee and Golden-bellied Flycatcher are rarely missed, and even hawk eagles will show up.

Whether guiding there, or birding with a friend, I love going to Tapanti. Well, except when the rain comes pouring down for hours on end, but if you luck out with cloudy or misty weather, the birding can be pretty darn good. This past Sunday, we had good, cloudy birding weather in the morning that was followed up by a saturating, after-lunch rain. As you may surmise, we didn’t see much in the afternoon, but the morning was OK. It would have been much better if we had run into a good mixed flock, but we just didn’t get lucky enough to cross paths with any. Nevertheless, here is a rundown of our birding day (morning):

After a drive through pouring rain and openly questioning the predictive ability of weather forecasts in Costa Rica, the skies cleared up sometime after Orosi, so we stopped in a birdy looking spot that had thick second growth on one side of the road and shade coffee on the other. A forested hillside on the opposite bank of the river also begged to be scanned for perched raptors and cotingas (one can always wish). Nothing showed up with scans of the hillside but birds on the side of the road were going nuts. They were mostly common, edge species but still fun to watch and included White-naped Brush-Finch, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Brown Jay, Montezuma Oropendola, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Slaty Spinetail, Plain Wren, Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits, Variable Seedeater, Grayish, Buff-throated, and Black-headed Saltators, and Blue-gray, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers.

There was also a  calling Barred Antshrike,

Costa Rica birding

The Barred Antshrike may be widespread, but it’s always cool to see a bird that looks like kind of like a zebra.

Costa Rica birding

White-tipped Dove,

Costa Rica birding

and the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Costa Rica birding

Further on, the colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas just across the bridge was still active.

Sulphur-bellied and Piratic Flycatchers, and Yellow-bellied Elaenias were hanging out in this area, as was one of our best (if dullest) birds for the day; a White-throated Flycatcher. Costa Rica’s only breeding Empid. is most easily seen in the remnant sedge marsh in front of the Lankester Gardens but it can also be found in the Orosi valley and a few other sites.

At the park entrance, we were welcomed by the squeeky calls of Golden-bellied Flycatchers, Tropical Parula, Brown-capped Vireo, Common Bush-Tanagers, and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and Spotted Wood-Quail were also heard in the distance.

Costa Rica birding

Golden-bellied Flycatcher.

Up the road through the park, Black-bellied Hummingbird and Green Thorntail made appearances and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush refused to show itself.

Costa Rica birding

Male Green Thorntail vainly attempting to blend in with a twiggy tree.

Hoping to see Ochre-breasted Antpitta and other uncommon species, we walked about a kilometer up the “Arboles Caidos” trail. The name of this trail means “fallen trees” but a more accurate title would be something like “climb the mountain” or just “damn steep trail”. It could also be an allegory to just falling back down the hill instead of attempting to mountain goat it back down to the road. Improvements have made walking this trail better than in the past (you no longer need to grasp muddy tree roots to pull yourself along), but it’s still a challenge.

Costa Rica birding

The Arboles Caidos trail- gateway to rare middle elevation species and, if you aren’t careful, an acute case of shin splints.

We defy gravity on the Arboles Caidos trail not because we want to climb Chirripo Mountain or train for a triathalon, but because birders have encountered things like Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, and Black-banded Woodcreeper (only place I have seen it in Costa Rica). We didn’t see any of these on Sunday, but we did hear White-throated Spadebill and Chiriqui Quail-Dove as consolation prizes. One day, I am going to spend most of a day on this trail to see what shows up and get recordings of that miniscule antpitta illustrated on the back cover of Garrigues and Dean (it’s Robert’s favorite bird). You don’t have to walk the entire time and it’s a beautiful place to hang out in any case.

We were severely impressed by this red flower on the Arboles Caidos.

Costa Rica birding

We also saw that feisty little creature known as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant.

The rest of the day was dedicated to finding mixed flocks along the main road through the park. Our strategy involved slowing driving along while listening for Slaty-capped Flycatcher and Spotted Woodcreeper with the windows down and sun-roof open. We found a few more species for the day such as Tufted Flycatcher, Spotted Barbtail, and White-throated Thrush, but no luck with mixed flocks. The strategy was a good one until it started to rain and the open sun roof became an ambassador for falling water. Not much else happened after that although I did run into birding guide Steven Easley (we had some nice conversation about Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows), and managed to get pics of Collared Trogon.

Costa Rica birding

I soooo like birds that let me take their picture.

The drive back to the Central Valley was like a ride through a monsoon on steroids. Well, I guess not that crazy but I will say that it was raining so hard that it was more like “jaguars and wolves” than “cats and dogs”. Yep, the rainy season is here but birding Costa Rica is as great as ever (as long as you go birding in the morning).

Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Good Birding near San Ramon on Monday

I normally don’t get the chance to go birding on Mondays. The morning is typically reserved for bringing my daughter to the babysitter, and the rest of the day sees me sitting in front of the computer. I hear TKs and Rufous-collared Sparrows in the early part of the day, envy the freedom of Red-billed Pigeons, White-winged Doves, Blue and white Swallows, and Blue-gray Tanagers as I drive through narrow, busy streets, and always wish I was exploring luscious rainforests on the other side of the mountains. The GPS insists that they are so close (20 miles in a straight line) but the dramatically upheaved topography and my schedule ensure that the green havens are a bit too far for a quick visit.

Unless I am guiding (and I give a thousand thanks to everyone I have guided), my birding in Costa Rica is usually limited to the weekend. This past Monday was the happy exception as I was tasked with delivering binoculars to a young guide who lives just outside of La Fortuna. He had been waiting months for those binoculars because of the difficulties associated with him coming up to the Central Valley and me driving over to the Arenal area. I didn’t want to send them with the local mail service because I frankly didn’t want to risk losing that precious cargo, or having them arrive a month later. I didn’t have to bring Miranda to the babysitter in the morning because she spent the night there on Sunday (and surely enjoyed it because she got to hang out with her Madrina or Godmother), so Monday was the day to drive to La Fortuna AND bird along the way!

I left just before the break of dawn- one of the best times for driving because of the dearth of traffic- and headed west on the highway towards the small city of San Ramon. I drove with the windows down to listen for birds as I coasted down towards the airport but the only things I heard were Great-tailed Grackles, TKs, Grayish Saltators, Rufous-collared Sparrows, and Blue-gray Tanagers. I am always on the listen for Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow to find more sites for this species and make a roughshod attempt at assessing its habitat needs, but no such luck in hearing any on Monday.

The windows went back up once I reached the highway and traffic picked up. Even at five a.m., trucks were barreling along and people were waiting for buses. I passed the sugarcane fields and patchy moist forests around Grecia and Palmares, and took the turn off to San Ramon before the highway starts its descent to Puntarenas and the Pacific lowlands. As I drove through town, overcast skies made me wonder if rain would foil my attempts at getting bird recordings and pictures. Things didn’t look any better as I made my way over the low pass to the Caribbean Slope.

birding Costa Rica

There’s fog in them there hills…

The drive over the pass near San Ramon is typically a misty trip but on Monday the fog was a curtain of damp, dingy cotton. I slowly made my way along the road and wondered where the bottom of the cloud was located. The songs of Eastern Meadowlarks and Bronzed Cowbirds issued from the ether-like surroundings and were testament to the tragic conversion of forest to pasture that occurred decades before any protected areas in Costa Rica even existed as a concept. When I heard the hurried songs of Mountain Robins and cheerful snippets of Slate-throated Redstarts, I knew that I had once again reached forested areas, and not long after, the  fog lifted to reveal dripping cloud forest and light rain near the Nectandra Institute and the San Luis Canopy.

The hurried song of a Mountain Robin

I was tempted to make a stop at the San Luis Canopy to scan a forested hillside for Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga, but just drove on past because I wanted to maximize my time along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve. I reached this excellent middle elevation site 10 minutes later and although it was still raining, the precipitation was exactly how you want it to be- enough to fool the birds into thinking that it’s early morning but not so much that you can’t watch them. I don’t expect that the birds are actually fooled, but when the weather is like this, they sure act as if it’s 7 a.m.  A downside is that it’s not conducive for bird photography so you won’t see many images in this post. I guess you will just have to go there yourself (I can guide you) to see things like Brown-billed Scythebill, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, some sweet antbirds (aren’t they always?), and a bunch of tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

Fog or light rain in tropical forests = awesome birding!

Upon arrival, I had the usual suite of aquatic and second growth species that I get at this site:

Least Grebe, Northern Jacana, calling White-throated Crakes, Ringed Kingfisher, Red-billed Pigeon, flyovers of White-crowned Parrots, Slaty Spinetail, Tropical Pewee, Cinnamon Becard, and Montezuma Oropendolas to name a few.

Just up the hill, things got exciting as soon as I stepped out of the car when a male Black-crested Coquette buzzed around a low bush with small yellow flowers. He got chased off by a Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and before I knew it, I had a perched Blue-throated Goldentail in my bins. A quick look around revealed some of the best hummingbird activity I have seen on this road. Without feeders, the flowering Ingas and bushes turned up 8 species of hummingbirds including Brown Violetear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds! This is the second time I have seen this Pacific Slope species happily sucking nectar from flowers fed by waters that rush down to the Caribbean Sea.

While attempting to ID hummingbird silhouettes (another downside of birding in misty conditions), Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens sang, Yellow-olive Flycatcher was being too hyperactive for photos, and Thicket Antpitta called from its usual inpenetrable haunts. I slowly made my along the road and recorded the voices of a good bunch of birds. Some of these were: Long-billed Gnatwren, Dusky Antbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Brown-hooded Parrot, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush.

This recording gives you an idea of what it sounds like along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, Lesser Greenlet, and Tropical Parula among others): Manuel Brenes Road Medley

While I was capturing the sounds of this little known Costa Rica birding hotspot, I also saw quite a few species including: American Swallow-tailed Kite, Crested Guan, Spotted Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Grosbeak, Passerini’s, Black and Yellow, White-throated Shrike, Speckled, and Hepatic Tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Russet Antshrike, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and others.

The only bird I was able to photograph was one of the best. The image isn’t going to provoke any “oohs” or “aahs”, but if you use your imagination (and a field guide), you should be able to identify it as a Blue and Gold Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Blue and Gold Tanager- uncommon regional endemic often found in this area.

I stayed until ten a.m. or so before heading down the highway to La Fortuna. After meeting and giving the binoculars to Elias (a young guide for the Arenal area with a good handle on the birds there), I should have made my way back to the Central Valley but instead, opted for heading over to Lake Arenal in search of my lifer Keel-billed Motmot. Being short on time and in desperate need of this uncommon species, I chose to broadcast its vocalizations into a few suitable looking spots. I came up empty handed (except for a distant Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher)  and liferless but it was worth a shot. If I hadn’t went looking for the motmot, I wouldn’t have gotten my best images of the day:

birding Costa Rica

Displaying male White-collared Manakin.

He only let me get off two shots before rushing back into the undergrowth but both came out pretty nice!

After success with the manakin, I checked out the lake and ended up getting my year Peregrine Falcon instead of  any interesting waterbirds. As this site can be good for Plumbeous Kite, I was half expecting the falcon-like shape to be that species but I wasn’t complaining when it turned into an adult Peregrine- an awesome bird to end the day. In all honesty, it wasn’t actually the end of my day but I prefer that happy ending over the subsequent experience of driving through cushion thick fog, pounding rain, and horrendous traffic.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Good Mixed Flocks during Recent Birding at Quebrada Gonzalez

The trails at Quebrada Gonzalez march through beautiful primary rainforests. It’s quality habitat for sure but that doesn’t make it easy to see birds. In fact, the sky high canopy and dense riot of foliage make the birding pretty darn challenging. Nevertheless, if it weren’t for the quality of the forest, Quebrada Gonzalez wouldn’t offer the chance of seeing birds like Tiny Hawk, all three hawk-eagles, Barred Forest-Falcon, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Black-crowned Antpitta, and a colorful host of tanagers.

I wish I could say that I saw all of these birds on every visit but the quirks of birding in tropical forest make that an impossibility. I bet I would have a fair chance of seeing all of the above and much more during a week of intensive birding (and I would love to try just that), but even one morning is bound to turn up species that are tough to see elsewhere in Costa Rica. For example, here is a run down of what the birding was like during a recent morning of guiding in the wet, foothill forests of Quebrada Gonzalez:

Arrived at 6 a.m. to meet with clients. Went on in to OK our early visit with the rangers (you must contact them in advance to enter before 8). A quick check around the parking lot turned up close looks at Dusky-faced Tanagers. Scanned the forest canopy and distant trees but nothing perched up on them today (Tiny Hawk can sometimes be found this way). A fair amount of birdsong though- Carmiol’s Tanagers, Bay and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, Buff-rumped Warbler, Striped Woodhaunter, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow to name those that I recall.

We entered the forest but despite carefully watching and listening, saw rather few birds at first. At least we got the chance to watch more Dusky-faced Tanagers, Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers, Orange-billed Sparrow, and a cooperative Spectacled Antpitta! I heard at least 3 different Spectacled Antpittas over the course of the morning and this one popped into view because I whistled like one where we good view into the undergrowth. Always a good bird to see, and especially so for the clients because the antpittas at Carara had refused to show themselves.

Further on, we came across activity in the canopy that eventually turned into a full fledged mixed flock! It was just as I had hoped, and especially so when White-throated Shrike-Tanager began to call and then perched for prolonged views. We were kept busy for more than an hour as tanagers and other small birds flitted through the tall canopy. Views were tough but we managed to glimpse a good number of species. The one that we didn’t see, however, caused us some painful frustration. This anguishing heard only bird was a Sharpbill that just wouldn’t reveal itself despite singing on three occasions. The experience mirrors other encounters I have had with this weird species at Quebrada Gonzalez and thus makes me suspect that the bird (or birds) keep still as they sing from some hidden perch way high up in the canopy.

So, no Sharpbill seen, but we still had a pretty good tally for the flock:

Striped Woodhaunter

Plain Xenops

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Spotted Woodcreeper

Russet Antshrike

Rufous Mourner

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-margined Flycatcher

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Lesser Greenlet

Red-eyed Vireo

Canada Warbler

Tropical Parula


Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager

Carmiol’s Tanager

Tawny-crested Tanager

White-throated Shrike-Tanager

White-shouldered Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Emerald Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager

Black and yellow Tanager

Blue and gold Tanager

Bay-headed Tanager

Rufous-winged Tanager

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Tawny-capped Euponia

White-vented Euphonia

Black-faced Grosbeak

Thirty-two species (if counting the Sharpbill) and I am sure that we missed a few birds! While we were scanning the vaulted roof of the forest to identify the birds in the flock, we also had a separate, understory mixed flock move through the area that included Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Checker-throated Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Other bird species identified (most by their vocalizations) during the flock activity and shortly thereafter were:

Great Tinamou

Lattice-tailed Trogon

Black-throated Trogon

Rufous Motmot

Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

Green Shrike Vireo

White-ruffed Manakin

Scarlet-rumped Cacique

Brown-hooded Parrot

Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

White-necked Jacobin

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Gray-rumped and Chimney Swifts

Short-billed Pigeom

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove

American Swallow-tailed Kite

We exited the forest by 9:30 a.m. and by then, things were typically quiet. Scanning the skies for around 15 minutes revealed a few swifts, brief American Swallow-tailed Kite, and high-flying Black Vultures, but no hoped for King or Black Hawk-Eagle. We probably would have gotten more raptors if we had looked for an hour or so but since we only had until 11, we did the trail once more to improve our chances of running into Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, or some other rarity. Our mid-morning walk turned up a blank on those and other birds but at least we gave it a try!

Soon after, we parted ways and the rain began to fall. As I crossed the bridge over the Rio Sucio, I noticed my last bird for the day- a Bat Falcon perched high up on a snag overlooking the river. I wished I could have stayed there and watched the forested hillsides like that falcon was doing, but it was time to go back home on the other side of the mountains.