I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:
After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.
We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.
Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.
A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.
Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.
Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).
Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!
We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.
It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.
Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).
The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.
Here is the list for the day:
|Black Vulture||White-throated Crake|
|Turkey Vulture||Bare-shanked Screech Owl|
|White Hawk||Immaculate Antbird|
|Black Guan||Silvery-fronted Tapaculo|
|Rock Pigeon||Paltry Tyrannulet|
|White-winged Dove||Common Tody-Flycatcher|
|Crimson-fronted Parakeet||Social Flycatcher|
|White-crowned Parrot||Barred Becard|
|Costa Rican Pygmy Owl||Plain Wren|
|Green Hermit||Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush|
|Stripe-throated Hermit||Rufous-capped Warbler|
|Scaly-breasted Hummingbird||Yellow-faced Grassquit|
|Violet Sabrewing||Sooty-faced Finch|
|Brown Violetear||Black-cowled Oriole|
|Green Violetear||Yellow-bellied Siskin|
|Purple-throated Mountain Gem|
|White-bellied Mountain Gem|
|Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)|
|Gray-breasted Wood Wren|