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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Birding in Costa Rica on the Providencia Road

Whether guiding or not, I try to get out birding at least once a week. It provides a much needed escape from the greater San Jose area of Costa Rica (an over-urbanized place with skinny, twisting streets frequented by a plethora of bad drivers). It also gets me up into natural habitats where I can marvel at tropical biodiversity and feel more “at home”. I also make recordings of bird vocalizations and attempt to get pictures of birds with my antiquated digiscoping set-up. It’s always a great time and I often share the morning with Susan, a fellow birding friend.

On Sunday, Susan came by at the usual time of 4:30 a.m. and we made tracks for Cerro de la Muerte. The near absence of traffic at this early hour makes driving a joy but it still took at least an hour and a half to reach our starting point. The plan was to bird what is known as the Providencia Road, a rural byway that traverses some of the best highland forest habitats in Costa Rica. This auspicious road starts just across the street from the second Chispiritos restaurant and is situated at a chilly 3,000 meters. You will also recognize it by the sign that points to Providencia and the entrance to the Los Quetzales National Park. The restaurant is a popular stop for buses, trucks, and anyone else traveling over the mountain of death (that’s what Cerro de la Muerte means) and could be used for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while you looked for things like Zeledonias and Silver-throated Jays along that route to Providencia.

After a brief bathroom and coffee break at the restaurant, we headed over to the entrance of Providencia Road. Sooty Robins were seen, Barred Parakeet was heard, and an Ochraceous Pewee called (!). As the pewee would have been a lifer, we watched and waited for it but it had called out of sight and stayed that way.  It was easier to see the many Timberline Wrens that were vocalizing in the area. The first kilometer or so of the road could be the easiest, most accessible site for this species as they were very common and readily seen. The little bamboo gnomes still didn’t allow me to get a photo but what are you gonna do?

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Zeledonia land.

Further down the road, lots of Zeledonias (or Crowned Wrenthrush if you happen to have an aversion to the language of the Roman Empire) called and we got good looks at a couple in the bamboo undergrowth. Another Ochraceous Pewee called but this did the same as the last and stayed far from the road and out of sight. While groups of Band-tailed Pigeons flew overhead, expected species showed up like Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager.

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You won’t miss this regional highland endemic if you bird the high mountains of Costa Rica.

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Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush- hard to miss this one too.

There were also loads of Flame-throated Warblers.

Here is one from the back

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and another from the front.

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Other expecteds were Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches, Collared Redstart, Paltry Tyrannulet, Red-tailed Hawk (the local, non-band-bellied subspecies), Black-capped Flycatcher, Volcano, Fiery-throated, and Magnificent Hummingbirds,  Slaty Flowerpiercer, Yellow-winged Vireo, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, and others. We didn’t see too many fruiting trees and this was reflected by the absence of Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher and Spangle-cheeked Tanager.

Some of the better species that we recorded by sound were Resplendent Quetzal (just one calling bird as far as I recall), Buff-fronted Quail-Dove (another sole, distant calling bird), Rough-legged Tyrannulet (another heard only). Good species we saw were Silver-throated Jay (always a good one!), Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Barred Becard, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and

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Black-cheeked Warbler– another smart-looking highland endemic.

The scenery along this road was also spectacular. We drove through kilometers of excellent high elevation forest and this road must surely be a good site to try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl at night. A couple of trails also left the road although we didn’t check those.

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The Providencia Road.

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Great high elevation birding in Costa Rica along this route!

The first few kilometers didn’t require 4 wheel drive but that changed as we got closer to the village of Providencia. A settlement more or less situated in the middle of nowhere, you will know that you are getting close when you see deforested hillsides with a scattering of cows. The birds (and constant descent) told us that the elevation was also much lower than the high parts of the road. Clay-colored Robins replaced the Sootys, Blue-gray Tanagers were around and we picked up Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and Elegant Euphonia. The drive up and out of the valley eventually leads to the road that goes by El Toucanet Lodge. We took that and made due note of the need for 4-wheel drive along parts of it and that it took much longer than expected! As that part of the road gets back into the high elevations, it also passes through excellent forest before descending into drier habitats near El Toucanet. It then heads into the town of El Copey and can be taken to Santa Maria de Dota and back to the main highway.


Acorn Woodpeckers are fairly common around Providencia.

Although doing the entire road requires some stamina and a 4-wheel drive, some of the best birding is up near the top and traffic is minimal at best. You could even bird that area by bus. Just take any bus that passes over Cerro de la Muerte (to or from San Isidro del General) and get off at the Chispiritos restaurant near the entrance to the Los Quetzales National Park. From there, you can walk the road and head in on the trails. If you use the trails, keep in mind that you are probably supposed to pay a national parks entrance fee at the nearby offices (you will see them). The next time I go (and I plan on going again soon), I will stick to the first 4 kilometers of the road.

2 replies on “Birding in Costa Rica on the Providencia Road”

Hi Patrick,

I will be coming down to Costa Rica around Dec 1st and staying at my friends place in Drake’s Bay again this year for another 6 month stint. I usually like to bird somewhere different before going to Drake’s Bay and thought about Providencia Rd. Is it possible to rent a room at Chispiritos restuarant or close to there? I take the bus and, if possible, like to stay at inexpensive places. Previous years I’ve stayed at La Georgina restuarant and El Toucanet Lodge. One year I followed your advice and stayed in San Ramon and birded the Los Lagos area and was pleased with the results. Thanks.

Snakes pictures in your articles are always appreciated. At Drake’s Bay I probably spend as much time, maybe more, looking for snakes as I do for birds. Luckily its possible to do both at the same time.


@Bob- Cool to hear that you will be coming back down to CR. I don’t know if there is anywhere to stay near Chispiritos but next time I head up that way, I will check. I like looking for snakes too and always wish I could see more of them!

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