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Birding in Costa Rica at the Other Virgen del Socorro

Birding in Costa Rica hasn’t been going on as long as watching for wood-warblers in Central Park,  counting hawks at Cape May, or taking pictures of birds at Ding darling Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, we do have our own little set of classic sites and Virgen del Socorro is one of them. It earns “classic” status mostly because the rocky road into the forested canyon has felt the hiking shoes of hundreds of birders since the 1980s. I daresay that people have also birded the spot in the pre-history of Costa Rican birding (this would be pre-1989, the publication date for The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch).

Birders have visited Virgen del Socorro for years because it has offered easy access to some fine middle elevation birding. Although the 2009 Cinchona earthquake put a hiatus on visits and diminished the habitat, it is currently accessible and can still be great for a nice mix of foothill and cloud forest species.

Nevertheless, there is “another” Virgen del Socorro that deserves our attention. This “other” is really just the part of the road that goes from the northern side of the settlement and loops over to the main road to Sarapiqui just north of San Miguel. Since classic Virgen del Socorro birding is typically limited to birding in the canyon, most birders haven’t made it to this other nearby site. In fact, I wasn’t aware of it until a few months ago although I have wished that I could fly over to those forest from San Miguel every time I see them from afar.

Last weekend, I was finally able to check out the site for a morning of birding with faithful birding friend Susan. Here is a brief report and synopsis:

After crossing the mountains at Varablanca, we drifted downslope to pass the waterfall and Cinchona Cafe, eventually reaching the foothills and San Miguel around 6:30 am. We hadn’t made any real stops except at a service station where a Mourning Warbler popped out of a nearby bush. White-winged Doves were also present and a reminder that they are almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The entrance to the lower Virgen del S. loop is just after San Miguel and can be recognized by the semi-creepy presence of a cemetery.

Fortunately and amazingly, there are also a couple of signs.

The road is paved and takes a few curves down through farmland with scattered trees, lots of Social Flycatchers, and other common, edge species before reaching the first river.

One of the rivers.

As is required of anyone with binoculars, we searched the river rocks and boulders for a lurking tiger-heron or Sunbittern but despite seemingly ideal habitat, came up with zilch. The same thing happened at the next one or two rivers, one of which was the Sarapiqui. Although we failed on those river birds, they should show up. The rivers were also good places for watching the forest in the riparian zone although we didn’t see much at the big river.

At the most forested river ( a smaller one, I think it is the Rio Volcan), we had some birds. Actually, we had a lot and thanks to a major fruiting fig, only needed to stand in place and swivel back and forth to see dozens of species. This was a major rather than minor fruiting fig because it was big, filled with fruits, and jumping with birds. Yes, it was a veritable avian disco fruit fest with several Black-mandibled Toucans doing their best John Travolta. Their dance consisted of reaching with the beak to pick off a fig and gliding between branches as thrushes, tanagers (mostly common ones), and flycatchers rustled the dark green foliage. After 30 minutes of action, the birds were upstaged (and scared off) by eight hungry Spider Monkeys! This was a treat because this primate has become decidedly uncommon in many parts of Costa Rica.

A Spider Monkey in action.

When this happened, many of the birds rushed over to decorate the branches of a nearby bare tree. Most were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers but we also had several Golden-hoodeds, honeycreepers, and our only Plain-colored Tanager of the day. We also had our first of three White Hawks during the morning.

As the monkeys settled down, some birds came back but it looked like most weren’t going to be foolish enough to hang out with a bunch of hairy primates so we moved on up the road. On the side of the bridge, the road switchbacks up through some alright forest and I surmise that this part of the road in particular has a lot of potential. Although we didn’t get any results when  playing the sound of the monklet at likely spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. Nor did we get any response from Black-crowned Antpitta but who knows? Maybe it could show up too if some ants came marching through. One indication of good habitat was a response from Ocellated Antbird, and we had a few other good birds further up the road.

A good spot just down the road from the fig tree.

Some of our best birding was on a straight road that dead ends at a small hydro project. Although there weren’t many places to pull off the road, it passes through nice forest, we had a lot of mixed flock activity, heard Black-headed Antthrushes kind of far off, and had killer looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

The straight hydro road. I would love to bird there a lot more.

The eagle was calling down in a nearby canyon and since it was giving an atypical call, to make sure that it was an Ornate, and not a Black and White, I imitated the call to bring it into view. The bird complied and showed that it was indeed a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Ornate Hawk Eagle indeed!
A closer look at this powerful raptor- they can catch a curassow.

After that high point, we followed the road to a point where there are steps that lead to a small overlook above the hydro project. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers reminded us that we were approaching the lowlands. We also had Fasciated Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and other lowland species on another side road that eventually led to unbirdy farmland. Continuing on up the main road to Virgen del Socorro (more signs!), we passed next to more forest and saw things like Crimson-collared Tanager, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Collared Aracari. This road eventually loses its pavement (and may require four wheel drive), then goes through flat, fairly deforested farmland before reaching the settlement of V. de Socorro but also passes by a small reservoir en route that had Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and one Ring-necked Duck.

We also saw a few Russet Antshrikes. These birds are really into dead leaves.

One can keep following this road on up to the good middle elevation forests around Albergue del Socorro, or can follow it to the right and down through the classic V del Socorro canyon. We did a but of both, highlights being one or two White Hawks, heard only Barred Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon, and saw other expected species including Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

The lower loop looks like a good one to take if birding Virgen del Socorro because it accesses forest at 500 meters elevation, goes through some nice habitat, and allows more views of rivers (not to mention our killer looks at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle). Check out this eBird list to see which birds we saw and heard.

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