On your way to Costa Rica? As the plane descends below the clouds and makes its approach to the Juan SantaMaria airport, look out the window to the north. You might notice that one of those green-topped mountains is punctuated with a big, rocky crater. That particular mountain would be Poas, one of the main volcanoes that overlooks the Central Valley. You can actually visit that crater, walk right up to the edge, and look in to see the steam rising from an uninviting, acidic pool of water. The experience requires an online reservation and the stay is limited to 30 minutes, but that is one way to visit Poas.
Another way is not actually going to the crater of this popular national park but visiting the upper slopes of the volcano from the road. With the trails being closed near the crater, this is currently the most productive way for a birder to visit Poas, and is also the easiest means of seeing a great selection of cloud forest species just 45 minutes from the airport. Yes, it really is that close and there really are Resplendent Quetzals, Wrenthrushes, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and many other highland endemics up there in the forests of that green mountain.
The straightforward access to habitats on Poas make for quick and easy cloud forest birding. Although most birders get their highland species fix in the Dota Region and/or Monteverde, a birder with an extra morning, day, or afternoon can’t go wrong with a visit to Poas. These are a few easy ideas and some of the birds that can be seen and photographed:
Birds in the Central Valley
Before driving to Poas, you may want to check for other species at or near your hotel. A fair number of bird species occur in hotel gardens, remnant forest in riparian zones, and on coffee farms. Although the majority are common species of edge habitats that can also be seen elsewhere, some are more easily seen in the Central Valley. These include such species as Lesson’s Motmot, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and Chestnut-collared Swift among others.
Take Route 146
This is the most direct and quickest route to the Poas area. Although there is very little room to pull over and bird on the way up, some of the side roads can have both ground-sparrows, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and other more common species.
Birding at Freddo Fresas, Sazones, and other sites in Poasito
Poasito is the main settlement on the upper part of Route 146. Because the area receives a number of local visitors, especially on weekends, there are a number of cafes, restaurants, and other small tourist attractions. A few of these places have gardens and/or access to a riparian zone that can host Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Red-faced Spinetail and other species of middle elevation habitats. At times, fruiting trees can also attract Black Guan, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and even Resplendent Quetzal! The garden at Freddo Fresas is the best spot for hummingbirds and can also be good for other species. Sazones has one of the nicest views of the riparian zone although fruiting trees can also be seen right from the main road.
The Volcan Restaurant
After taking the turn towards Poas instead of Varablanca, the vehicle quickly descends to a forested riparian zone. The Volcan Restaurant is on the left, next to a stream, and is a good place to stop for lunch. Hummingbird feeders in the back attract several species including Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Violet Sabrewing, and Lesser Violetear. Wait long enough and you might also see Magenta-throated Woodstar and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Volcano Hummingbirds are regular, Scintillant only very rarely so, be careful about separating the females of these two similar species. In the forest, various cloud forest species can occur including quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet and Spangle-cheeked Tanager but quite often, this site is pretty quiet.
The high elevations
The best habitat along the road is after Poas Lodge. There are few places to pull the vehicle off the road and one has to be careful of traffic to and from the national park. The birding can be good anywhere along this stretch, the best activity occurring at fruiting trees and where mixed flocks are roaming. A good number of high elevation species are also possible including Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty Thrush, Black-capped Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Ruddy Treerunner, and various other birds. This upper part is also where a birder needs to go to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Wrenthrush, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Highland Tinamou are present but are more often heard than seen.
Just 7 minutes from Poasito to the east, the crossroads at Varablanca make for a nice stop. There are a few cafes here, the one I recommend the most is the place just across the street from the gas station. They have an espresso machine, various snacks, empanadas, and so on. Although the habitat at this spot has decreased, it can still be good for Yellow-winged Vireo, Collared Redstart, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and other species.
Whether fitting in a morning of birding or a full day of high and middle elevation species, the Poas area is ideal for quick and easy birding from the San Jose area. Email me at [email protected] to learn more about tour options for the Poas area and the best places to stay for birding in Costa Rica. The birding is always exciting, I hope to see you soon!