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Easy, Highland Birding in Costa Rica at Varablanca

Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!

In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.

A trail at Poas Volcano Lodge.

Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.

Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:

  • If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.
    Note the sign.

    There be barbets and a toucanet on that feeder.
  • Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.

    Black-cheeked Warbler.
  • Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
  • Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
  • Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
  • Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.

    Prong-billed Barbet.
  • Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.

    Maybe we should call this an Orange-bellied Hawk.
  • Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
    Ruddy Treerunner.
    The Spangle-cheeked Tanager is another endemic.

    And so is the Large-footed Finch.

When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.

3 replies on “Easy, Highland Birding in Costa Rica at Varablanca”

You’re speaking to me, Patrick. I’m planning two consecutive week-long birding trips/vacations for 2 groups of friends (I’ll stay the whole time) in later October. Mostly we’ll stay at Playa Cativo lodge on the Golfo Dulce, but we’ll have a driving extension at the beginning and end of the period (one for each group). Gonna hit up Bosque del Rio Tigre (couple days) and Carara NP, and we’re planning to spend our first/last nights (afternoon thru morning) at Poas Volcano Lodge, one visit for each group. So this couldn’t be more perfectly aimed at me! You’re ringing all my bells–I particularly loved your FB post about the Osa Ears project, which was news to me. We’re hoping to visit Osa Conservation between Cativo and Rio Tigre (the Cativo guide will take us there). I just love that whole concept, being immersed in the soundscape of the tropical rainforest and picking out “familiar” (ha!) sounds!

Anyway, it’s great hearing of possibilities for a rainy afternoon near the volcano. I stayed briefly at the Volcano Lodge last year and tried finding good birdy trails on my own, but wasn’t very successful–I’ll have to be more proactive this time. Any hints?

@Mary Ann Good- The trip sounds good, the Osa is always exciting! I’m still trying to assess which species live on the trails at the Poas Volcano Lodge (I need at least one morning with good weather), but the edge of the woods seems good for Black-thighed Grosbeak, Slaty Flowerpiercer, as well as a fair variety of common species. You might also want to drive 10 minutes towards Poas to visit and bird the Volcan restaurant. In addition to the hummingbird feeders, various species visit the forested riparian zone.

[…] Central Valley: When this part of the country was covered in moist tropical forest and wetlands, it was probably fantastic birding and a great place to see Three-wattled Bellbird, Long-tailed Manakin, and many other species. However, since this is the part of the country where people set up house and agriculture, those birding opportunities disappeared 150 or more years ago. As with any area mostly dedicated to urbanization, the birding opportunities that remain are pretty slim. You don’t want to linger for too long in this part of the country but if you have to stay here, try the birding at Zamora Estate Hotel and Xandari. The Bougainvillea is a perennial favorite but both of the sites mentioned are closer to the airport, have more habitat, and thus more bird species. You might also want to stay a bit further afield in the Varablanca area. […]

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