The birding in Costa Rica is always good but some places are better, some birding mornings are more memorable than others. Recently, I had one such morning while birding a place I have visited much more than other sites. Easy, accessible, and good forest, I have made the 40 minute drive for birding at Poas on many an occasion. It’s always all good when I bring the binos to those high elevations but September 27th was one of the better visits, one that just might take the cake. Here’s why:
First Stop Has Most of the Birds
Upon reaching the high elevations, I stopped the car and said, “Let’s see what we find”. We barely exited the vehicle when a mixed flock found us. Yellow-thighed Brushfinches and other birds trooped into view and then stayed to feast on berries and I suppose to entertain us. I’m not sure how else to explain the close, constant, and easy views of so many Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers (we got tired of looking at them), Flame-throated Warblers, and more.
I didn’t think we would top that fantastic avian introduction but the highlights kept on coming.
Quetzal Perched in the Open
Next on the plate of birding happiness was a quetzal on a bare branch, backdrop of blue sky. It happened just after mentioning that we would search for quetzal but that we would still have to be lucky to find one. I pull up to the spot, look up to my left, and unbelievably, there goes a male Resplendent Quetzal, right in the open. It didn’t stay long but we got excellent, close looks. This was quickly followed by views of a Black Guan and a couple of Northern Emerald Toucanets. They must have been feeding from the same fruiting tree.
A Bunch of Chlorophonias
This was also a good morning for the miniature quetzal, the Golden-browed Chlorophonia. We had great looks at more than one male and were hearing their quaint calls at every stop.
Barred Parakeets Seen
I often hear the soft calls of Barred Parakeets when birding on Poas but rarely see the pint-sized parakeets. In needing to move around in search of feeding areas and doing so in flocks, this species reminds me of a crossbill. After hearing the birds, lo and behold, our luck continued when we saw a small group buzz overhead.
Blue Seedeater (!)
This was arguable the rarest bird of the morning. Although it has been seen near the main road to Poas, I had never previously seen one at this site. If I recall correctly, the small dark finchy bird was responding to pishing. I heard its chip note and at first thought we may have found another uncommon bird for Costa Rica, a MacGillivray’s Warbler.
Even so, it didn’t sound quite right and with good reason because the bird that took form in my binoculars was a male Blue Seedeater. As is typical for this special species, it was calling from a patch of old bamboo.
Black Hawk-Eagle Displaying
Yes, Black Hawk-Eagle. Earlier this year, I was surprised to see one of these large raptors in the highest part of Poas. The other day, we had a pair and one was calling as it quivered its wings like a giant deadly butterfly.
The Poas area is always good but the other day was one for the books; we had all of these birds and some before 8 in the morning. It makes me wonder what else is lurking in the forests that overlook the cars and winding roads of the Central Valley?
Birding opens the door to an endlessly interesting range of experiences. When you go birding, by definition, the focus is on the birds but since watching birds always involves much more than seeing them, the experience of birding entails far more than birdwatching.
For example, birding can be as mundane as meditating on the goldfinches that come to the feeder out back or as vigorous as making an Olympic grade sprint for a better view of a rare seabird. It can be rocking trips on the rolling blue waters of the open ocean, sharing priceless times with favorite peeps, and exploring new places and countries where you end up eating a Cavy (Guinea Pig) in the Andes.
When you find yourself chewing on that tough rodent meat in Cuzco, you may wonder how on Earth you got there, how on Earth did you end up eating the same species of animal as your eighth grade pet. “Birding” is the simple answer and it will also be the same answer when, after partaking in that meal of rodent, you wonder why you traveled to a place where climbing the stairs makes you feel around 20 or 30 years older. But if you wonder why you are short of breath, your answer won’t exactly be “birding”, it will be “where the heck is the oxygen?” or “high elevation”.
Since birds live almost everywhere, in Costa Rica, we don’t just find birds in the hot, humid rainforests of the lowlands. We also find them at the very tops of the mountains that form the country’s backbone and as one might expect, some of the ones that live way up there, only live way up there. This of course means that if you want to see them (and of course we all do!), you gotta head way up into the mountains.
Mountains, with the slopes of scree, sheer cliffs, ice, and other generally inhospitable facets, aren’t always the easiest of places to visit. I guess it’s why some people feel the need to climb them (a friend of mine does that, I bet he has trudged past vivid blue Grandalas in the Himalayas). In Costa Rica, much to the fortune of birders who would rather not do the climbing thing, we have a nice high mountain (technically a volcano) where you can drive right on up to 11,000 feet! That accessible high elevation birdy spot is Volcan Irazu, here are some expectations and highlights:
Fine High Elevation Birding
Get up above 2,000 meters and roadside birding offers a fine range of montane species. Check out the weirdly wonderful Long-tailed and Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, the easily identifiable Black-capped Flycatcher, clown antics of Acorn Woodpeckers, and views of many a Band-tailed Pigeon in flight.
Spot-crowned Woodcreepers and Collared Redstarts sing from the trees, and Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses rustle the leaves with several more highland endemics in tow. Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are the norm and are joined by Talamanca Hummingbird, Lesser Violetear, and Volcano Hummingbird. Keep an eye out for fruiting trees and you might find a quetzal (they are regular up on Irazu), Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges haunt the brush, and the tooting vocalization of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl may give away its position.
Keep on birding and you might even get lucky with one of the toughest widespread birds in the Neotropical region, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. A fair number seem to live on Irazu but they probably escape detection because they tend to be shy and rarely come into the open.
Potato Fields and Forest Patches
Being a volcano, Irazu has rich dark soils that have been used to grow crops for centuries. As you ascend the volcano, you will drive through several fields of soup ingredients; onions, taters, and carrots. These are dotted here and there with remnants of high elevation oak forest, unsurprisingly, the largest patches tend to have the best birding.
Forest patch birding is generally restricted to the roadside but it’s still good, just be careful how you park your car. For the best forest access, see the Nochebuena bit below.
MODOs in Costa Rica
As in Mourning Doves. I know, not exciting but since this North American suburban standby is very localized in Costa Rica, we get a kick out of seeing and hearing so many of them when ascending Irazu. It’s also a reminder that yes, that bird that sounds like a MODO while you watch a Fiery-throated Hummingbird is definitely a Dove a la Mourning.
The Highest of the High Elevation Birds
In Costa Rica, while more species live in the lower, more tropical elevations, there are a few special birds that managed to become adapted to the highest points in the nation. Two of them even became more or less restricted to the brushy treeline habitats that occur on Irazu, Turrialba, and the high Talamancas. This pair of birds of dramatic surroundings are the Volcano Junco and the Timberline Wren.
On Irazu, the wren can occur down to the Nochebuena area but the junco usually requires a drive right on up to the paramo at the edge of the national park. Once you arrive, don’t expect to see them right away. If it’s sunny, it might take especially long for them to appear. However, if you bird that paramo in the cold early morning, you will have good chance of connecting.
The wrens are fairly common but skulky. In keeping with typical wren fashion, they often give a fastidious call. The juncos aren’t as common as one might expect. They seem to occur in low density populations but unlike the wren, they aren’t the least bit shy about singing from the tops of bushes or hopping next to the car.
The Nochebuena Trails and Restaurant
This classic site is a must for any birding visit to Irazu. Even if you don’t feel like walking their trails (some of them uphill and with less oxygen than you are might be used to), it’s still worth visiting the small and friendly diner for a coffee and pecan pie or some other tasty home-cooked cuisine. While eating, you will probably be entertained by views of 4 species of hummingbirds, flyby Acorn Woodpeckers, Flame-colored Tanagers, and other species.
I hope you do feel like walking the trails though; it’s a beautiful hike. Take your time, be ready for some mud, and explore for wood-partridges, the pygmy-owl, and many other species. Listen carefully and keep a close eye out for the ground-dove, this is the best place to find it! After the trail passes through the fields, it eventually enters forest with a lot of bamboo. Timberline Wren is present along with nice mixed flocks of expected species as well as chances at the rare Slaty Finch and Peg-billed Finches.
The high elevation birding experience also has its other charms, not the least of which are the fantastic views.
A morning of birding Irazu is a good way to get an easy fix of high elevation birds and makes for a good birding day trip from the San Jose area. If you stay until dark, you can also look for nocturnal species including the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Whether just birding during the day or into the night, be prepared for very cool and rainy weather. If staying for the night, contact the Nochebuena, they also have a cabin that can be rented.
Poas is indeed a place but since it’s also a volcano, instead of saying “at” Poas, I can’t help but say “on” Poas. Where exactly the volcano begins in the Central Valley is subjective because the slopes gradually grade into the Alajuela area. But, once a birder begins to ascend the mountain, and especially at the higher elevations closer to the active crater, you are indeed up there on the volcano.
Team Tyto was up there the other day scouting for an upcoming trip. As it often is on Poas, the weather was a combination of wind, sun, and mist. The mist might be a barrier for sharp photos but for birds, it’s always better than sun and wind. During conditions like so, our feathered subjects of interest mostly play hide and seek with an emphasis on “hide”. Upon arrival, because of all that hiding, it’s easy to wonder where the birds are, conclude that none are around and that you are better off just enjoying the scenery.
The mountain scenery is indeed impressive but make no mistake, the birds haven’t disappeared, they just don’t feel like battling the blustery skies. They don’t call as much either because there might not be much use in vocalizing when few other birds can hear you and you also run the risk of attracting the attention of a predator whose sounds are likewise masked by the rushing sound of wind through the trees.
We had plenty of wind the other day but we still had some birds. No quetzals but given the abundance of fruit, there had to be some of those long-tailed megas in the area, they were probably taking shelter in ravines. The birds we did see included Sooty Thrush, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, and a few others. Not bad, not bad at all for a bit of casual birding on a windy day at 8:30 in the morning.
With more time and focus on the understory, I am sure we would have seen more even on such a windy day because no matter what the weather is on Poas, most of the birds are still there even if it doesn’t at first seem like it.
As an aside, if a birder tires of the wind, you can always check out the avian scene at the following nearby sites. We did and added several more species to the day list:
Freddo Fresas– The garden and ravine is good for more hummingbirds, Flame-colored Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, White-eared Ground-Sparrow and other upper mid-elevation species.
Corso– A dairy farm that offers milking tours and has an ice cream shop, Corso also has a parking area with Porterweed. Check it out for Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds, and a few other species.
Varablanca– Various sites and side roads near this mountain saddle crossroads are good for quite a few montane species even Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Wrenthrush, and various others.
A windy day doesn’t have to be a bad birding day. Be patient, keep looking, and when the weather changes, be ready for a welcome burst of bird activity! Good luck birding Costa Rica!
If you only had four days to go birding in Costa Rica, where would you go? What would you do? For most visiting birders, such circumstances are a non-issue, most people visit Costa Rica for a week or more. However, for those of us with such limitations as jobs, family, and other responsibilities, trips of four or five days might be the only means of checking out the avian scene. Is a four or five day trip worth the flight? I dare say that it was for two serious birders from Ohio during recent guiding.
The tour was focused on maximizing time in the field and seeing as many species as possible along with looking for a few choice targets. Since we only had a few days to work with, we couldn’t really bird in more than one or two regions. Therefore, we concentrated on the area with the most chances at lifers and a nice, fat speciose list; the Caribbean slope.
Since we also had to drive through the highlands and stay one morning in the Central Valley, this also gave a chance for a different suite of species on Poas, and a bonus morning of birding at Villa San Ignacio. Given the significant number of bird species that these sites added to the overall experience, birding on Poas and at Villa was a good choice.
The following gives an idea of how things went while birding in Costa Rica from June 14 to June 18:
Poas and Cinchona
After meeting at the airport and picking up the Suzuki Vitara from Vamos Rent-a-Car, we drove to the high elevations of Poas. The birding was rather brief and quetzals refused to play but we did see flyby Barred Parakeets, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, both silky-flycatchers, nightingale-thrushes, Sooty Thrush, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and several other highland endemics.
For whatever reason, Cinchona was not nearly as productive. Most of the hummingbirds were there and the cafe provided much appreciated, delicious, home-cooked cuisine but the barbets and toucanets had taken an afternoon break from the fruit feeders. On the rest of the drive to the lowlands, we also saw Bat Falcon and White Hawk among a few other nice birds and were greeted by a flyover Green Ibis at our hotel in the Caribbean lowlands.
The Sarapiqui Lowlands
Quinta de Sarapiqui was our base for the next three nights, a good choice for birding the lowlands and doing a morning trip to mid-elevation sites at Virgen del Socorro. The hotel accommodated with early morning coffee and if we had wanted, would have also arranged early breakfasts. Given their feeder photo action, it’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time at the hotel but we had too many other birds to see further afield.
During one full day and an afternoon in the Sarapiqui area, we did well with 150 or more species. The first morning at the edges of the La Selva reserve gave us several key species including fantastic Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-fronted Nunbirds, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Pale-billed, and Rufous–winged Woodpeckers, woodcreepers, antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-necked, Pied, and White-whisked Puffbirds, and more!
We stopped for a tasty lunch at the riverside restaurant, Rancho Magallanes and birded onward, taking a road near Quinta that accesses a wetland and lowland rainforest.
The wetland was rather quiet as was the birding in sunny conditions for the rest of the afternoon BUT fantastic close looks at Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle made up for the low activity! One of the rarer raptors in Costa Rica, this hawk-eagle is very difficult to find, we had one soaring with vultures and watched it for as much as we wanted. We also picked up a few other lowland species and had brief looks at Scarlet Macaws but came up short with target Great Green Macaw and Snowy Cotinga.
Since that area can also be good for night birds, we stayed until dark. As dusk grew, a Great Potoo called and we saw Short-tailed Nighthawk fly overhead. I then found the potoo and we watched as it sallied from a high snag before flying overhead on long, silent, owlish wings. Next on the list was a Vermiculated Screech-Owl that showed well followed by a Mottled Owl that came in and also gave great looks! Four nocturnal species in less than 40 minutes. This was outstanding and can’t be expected on every visit but does show how good this site can be for night birds. No luck with Black-and-White Owl on the drive back to the hotel but I bet we could have found one if we would have stayed out for another hour or two (not what we wanted after birding from dawn to dusk).
Virgen del Socorro
Realizing that we could see a lot more species by visiting Socorro, we spent a morning up that way. Highlights included views of Dull-mantled and Zeledon’s Antbirds, Nightingale Wren, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Emerald Tanager, White-vented Euphonia, and some 120 other species.
I had hoped for lunch at Mi Cafecito but since this site was busy with some folkloric activity that included loud music, we drove back into the lowlands. At a new restaurant in La Virgen that also mentioned trails and views of the river, we checked out birdy gardens and the river. It looked ideal for birds like Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Snowy Cotinga, and the macaws but a birder doesn’t see much during the sunny 2 p.m. doldrums, at least we didn’t.
Our last full day in the Caribbean lowlands began at the hummingbird hotspot of El Tapir. The main target, Snowcap, did indeed make an appearance and showed very well as did a few other hummingbird species. No luck with the coquette but the birds we saw in the forest may have made up for not seeing that exquisite little hummingbird. On the first trail, some foliage in movement revealed a serious mega, Bare-necked Umbrellabird! It wasn’t that close to the trail but it was big enough to get some clear looks at the oddly shaped head and red skin on the neck. It appeared to be a young male. Over on the other trail, Ocellated Antbirds took center stage as we checked out an antswarm! For a moment, I thought, “If a ground-cuckoo shows up, this could be the best visit I have ever had to El Tapir, ever”, but the ants weren’t that active and we didn’t see much else.
The Cope Experience
After a couple of hours at El Tapir, our fortune continued when we made the short drive to Cope’s place and were immediately greeted by another choice species, White-tipped Sicklebill! We had arrived at just the right time because the bird flew in, fed for about one minute, and then left for good. The feeders weren’t all that active but as usual, the birding was replete with close, satisfying looks at Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and various other species.
Over in the woods, the fine birding continued with scope views of Spectacled Owl and nice looks at Honduran White Bats roosting under a Heliconia leaf. We searched the forest for Crested Owl to no avail but did have excellent views of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle! Semiplumbeous Hawk also vocalized but wouldn’t come close, probably to avoid the hawk-eagle.
Before moving on, Cope said, “Let’s go check the old spot for Crested owl. I haven’t seen it there for some time but it’s worth a look.” We waited in the air-conditioned vehicle as Cope looked for the owl. After a few minutes, he returned and motioned us to follow him- a good sign! Sure enough, there they were, and not just one Crested Owl, but a pair with a juvenile!
To finish off the experience, we swung by a Great Potoo nest to digiscope a juvenile.
Although we could have seen more, by 2 p.m., it was time to drive back to the Central valley. As luck would have it, I noticed something perched on a snag as we drove the main road through the rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. No, it couldn’t be..but it was! An adult Ornate hawk-Eagle! Our third and final hawk-eagle in Costa Rica and in just three full days of birding.
Villa San Ignacio
On the last morning of the tour,we birded the grounds of Villa San Ignacio. The habitat at the hotel lived up to expectations with more than 50 species recorded from 6 until 8. Although endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow was a no show, we did see White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Lesson’s Motmot, Plain-capped Starthroat, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, and various other additions for the trip.
After that final sweet morning of birding, we dropped off the car and said our goodbyes. The final count was nearly 300 bird species identified. Although some of those were inevitably heard only, three hawk-eagles, antbirds, and an umbrellabird sort of made up for it!
The birding was focused and we didn’t stop for any siestas but even if you wanted a more relaxed trip, three days in Costa Rica could still turn up a heck of a lot of species. Interested in a quick trip to Costa Rica? Want to see quetzals and more? Stay at hotels ideal for birding? I can help, please contact me at [email protected] .
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!
In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.
Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.
Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.
On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:
The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!
Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.
From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.
Northern Emerald Toucanet
Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.
Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.
Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.
A few were singing and showed nicely.
These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.
Irazu is a volcano that dominates the eastern skyline of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. If you didn’t already know that a big old crater was hidden up there on top, it would be hard to imagine that the mountain out there to the east is actually a link to the molten underworld. From my back window, all I can see is a rocky massif topped with antennas and it looks so close I wish I could fly to it right from my back window. On hot days, I would swoop high over the winding mountain roads, small farms, and houses to cool off at those breezy 3,000 plus meter elevations. It would be especially nice to glide over there in the dark of the night to hang out with the saw-whets sans spots and investigate the whereabouts of Great Horned Owl and maybe even Stygian Owl. The Great Horned is mysterious and very rare in Costa Rica but has been heard up there on Irazu. As for the Stygian, that would be a major new mega country record and extension of its known range but who knows, there are a few tantalizing reports from Irazu.
The first wonderful thing about Irazu is that the volcano is in sleep mode. The second wonderful thing is that you don’t need wings to pay a visit. There is a very good road that leads right up to those antennas and an official national park. Head up there and you can see for yourself that there is indeed a deep crater up on top. Bring binoculars and you will also find that the birding is replete with a bunch of high elevation endemics including two key ones in the paramo; the Timberline Wren and the Volcano Junco.
The junco always looks as angry as an active volcano.
Although you can’t find either of those species anywhere other than in the paramo habitats of Costa Rica and western Panama, they still aren’t exactly abundant. They eventually show but it might take a bit to find them, recently, I did that with a few friends and ornithologists visiting Costa Rica for a Partners in Flight Conference. The junco played well by sitting on a leaf right behind our cars but as usual, it took a little while to find the wren. However, we eventually did and all got nice looks at the highland endemic.
But that wasn’t all we saw on Irazu.
Lower down, in bits of forest near the Noche Buena restaurant, we got great looks at the rufous morph Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that has been showing well since September, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, and some other highland species. Although several of the more common birds refused to show (and activity was rather quiet overall), we also got looks at one of the rarest species on the mountain (and in many parts of its range). That special bird was a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, a female that called from a perch in a riparian zone. A small population of doves are always up there, and as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours demonstrated earlier this year, you don’t need bamboo to see them. However, you do need that trio of factors typically required for many a shy bird- time, patience, and luck.
The other great bird for me was the other year bird I got, a beautiful little Townsend’s Warbler. As for other birding news, over at Lago Angostura and Casa Tuirire, a Wattled Jacana has been entertaining local twitchers. I’m dying to twitch it for the country myself, I just hope it stays long enough so I can do that! While looking at the jacana, other good birds have also turned up, notably Pinnated and Least Bitterns along with the expected Snail Kite and a few other nice species.
On the Pacific side, the nefarious Masked Duck has been showing somewhere in the Coto area near Ciudad Neily. With luck, I might finally see this major nemesis bird of mine this weekend during a bird count at Cano Negro. If I do, should I give it the finger as some other birders do? I doubt I will do that. Instead, I might just give it the cold shoulder and pretend to ignore it.
And the last bit of birding news is the big Bay-breasted Warbler wave that has been inundating Costa Rica. We knew we were seeing a lot at Selva Bananito two weeks ago but we didn’t know that everyone else was also seeing a lot on that weekend and since then even in San Jose! A few days ago, Bay-breasted were even seen foraging on the paths of the university campus like sparrow wannabees.
If you are headed to Costa Rica in the coming days, enjoy the birding, it’s going to be good, especially with the cool temps we have been experiencing. Learn how to see, find, and identify the birds of Costa Rica with my e-book-How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
For the past few weeks, most of my birding has taken the form of scouting for the Global Big Day on May 13th. Since I plan on starting shortly after midnight, I will actually be celebrating this modern birding holiday in a matter of hours. Hopefully, all of that scouting and planning will pay off with a Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and enough singing birds to push our total over the 300 species mark. The good thing is that if that doesn’t come to pass because of rain (very likely chance of precipitation) or other factors, it’s still going to be a great day of birding pretty close to the home base.
A view of Poas Volcano- not erupting on this morning.
Since much of that scouting involved the Poas area, I figured that it would be pertinent to give an update on the birding situation around there. Aside from scouting Varablanca, Poas, and Sarapiqui, since I also got in a nice day of guiding at Carara, I figured I would talk about that too.
The Poas situation: If you hadn’t heard, the park is closed because the volcano started erupting a month ago. Although activity has calmed down somewhat, the park is still off limits and probably won’t be opened for several months or even years. That said, don’t write off birding up in those mountains yet because you can still see quite a few good highland birds on the way to Poas and around Varablanca.
The barrier on the road up to Poas just after the Poas Lodge.
At the moment, the road is closed around three to four kilometers from the edge of the national park. This means that although the best highland forests are now off limits, you can still see most species in patches of forest from the village of Poasito up to that barrier, AND, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, Sooty Thrush, Highland Tinamou, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and most Peg-billed Finches are now beyond that barrier and therefore inaccessible but you can still see both silky-flycatchers, Prong-billed Barbet, Large-footed Finch at a few sites, and most of everything else including chances at Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, the Volcan Restaurant is still open as is Freddo Fresas; two sites with hummingbird feeders and riparian zones.
Try Varablanca: The area of Varablanca is very much open and accessible and because it’s around 45 minutes from the airport, continues to be a good site for a first or last night on a Costa Rica birding trip. Accommodation options include Poas Volcano Lodge, Poas Lodge, The Peace Lodge, and a few other spots. A fair number of highland species can be seen around accommodation, in riparian zones on the route towards Barva, and in the area between there and Socorro.
Carara: The Carara area is always good for birds no matter when you visit. Now is especially nice because the wet weather has resulted in lots of singing birds, good activity, and temperatures a bit more comfortable than the blazing Carara furnace from February to April. On my recent trip, we had Crane Hawk and good looks at Collared Forest Falcon on the Cerro Lodge road, several singing Northern Bentbills on the national park forest trail, excellent looks at Golden-crowned Spadebill at the bridge,
This is what a Golden-crowned Spadebill looks like.
good looks at vocalizing Long-tailed Woodcreeper (future split), trogons, excellent point blank views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and other expected species. What we didn’t have were many hummingbirds, nor many parrots. We still had plenty of macaws but very few other members of that esteemed family.
One of the close Streak-chested Antpittas, hopefully these will be recorded during the Global Big Day.
Hope to see you in the field. To learn about more sites for birding in Costa Rica as well as how to find and identify birds in this biodiverse country, see my e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It can be purchased through Kindle as well as PayPal, just follow the link. I will transfer the book within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase.
I have written about it before and am happy to do so again. The Poas area is an easy, fun way to see a bunch of nice birds, and the photo opps aren’t that bad either. Last Friday, I was reminded of that while guiding around Cinchona and Poas. It would be a lucky break to see something like Black-breasted Wood-Quail and other species of the forest floor because most of the birding is done from the road, but that doesn’t leave out a lot. We actually heard the wood-quail near Cinchona and had excellent looks at 100 or so species. These included such birds as:
White-bellied Mountain-gem, and several other hummingbirds.
Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher
There were lots of other species that I didn’t get pictures of. Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, and several other Furnarids showed well, as did Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and various other birds.
Saving one of the best for last, we finished off the day with roosting Bare-shanked Screech-Owl!
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.
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.
Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.
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.
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.
Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
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.