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Birding Costa Rica central valley high elevations Introduction preparing for your trip

Mountain roads and Volcan Barva birding in Costa Rica

From the second story of our house in Santa Barbara de Heredia, we can see the Talamancas rising up in the hazy distance off to the southeast and big, blocky Irazu with a slight turn of the head to the left. Volcan Turrialba lies hidden behind 11,000 foot Irazu but still makes itself known by broadcasting a daily cloud of smoke and vapor. Scanning further left and to the north, a forested ridge of peaks that are protected within Braulio Carrillo National Park dominate the scene. As mountains tend to do, they look so close and inviting that you start to think to yourself, hey I could just walk up there and watch birds! Skip on through the coffee plantations and riparian growth that cling to the edges of streams and rivers and head on up into the forest proper. Leave the asphalted oxcart paths and urbanizations behind for majestic oaks (they are tree royalty after all) and the vegetation overload of high-elevation, Costa Rican cloud forests.

Costa Rica birding

Turrilba smoking at dawn.

They look so close and no wonder because with Google Earth’s handy ruler, I just discovered that the peak of Volcan Barva is only 6 miles from my house as the Crimson-fronted Parakeet flies! This revelation is particularly astounding because it took at least 45 minutes to drive up there this past Sunday. The reasons for such a gross discrepancy between  distance and driving time are quite valid and also hint at why the Spanish didn’t bother very much with the mountainous areas of Costa Rica.

First and foremost, the broken terrain that is bisected and trisected by small streams that have somehow carved huge ravines out of the crumpled surroundings presents, as you can now imagine, some difficulty for overland travel. Paved roads and cars make it about a thousand times easier to go visit the abuelos (grandparents) for Sunday dinner compared to 50 years ago but travel times between places that are so close to each other still makes you feel as if you have entered some sort of slow motion timewarp or Tico tesseract. Travel in a straight line is strictly for the birds or Uraniid moths because roads are necessarily curvy and twisting affairs that wind their way up and down mountains. This makes for beautiful scenery but may also leave you feeling quite envious of moths, vultures, and other animals that can fly.

Speaking of roads, we can now contemplate the second reason why 5 miles up the mountain is better defined as 30 miles up the mountain. Before I start, though, let me say that roads have greatly improved in Costa Rica over the past 5 years. It’s true! There are fewer potholes and better maintenance of Costa Rican byways and the coastal highway makes it a breeze to travel in the Pacific lowlands. That said, the thing that keeps you from speeding along smoothly-paved mountain roads is that they were built for oxcarts.

Tico oxcarts in a parade.

Those roads have been around for a while but they were just never meant for cars. This is why they have more than one lane but not quite two except at bridges when they are most definitely one-laned. I apologize if that sounds confusing but rest assured, if you aren’t entirely clear about that last sentence then you have an idea of what it’s like to drive these mountain roads. Because there is little room for two cars (and no shoulder) you have to drive at a more relaxed, careful pace, obviously so when sharing the road with vehicles headed your way.  It’s only harrowing if you go fast so to keep the peace with your heart rate and avoid an overload of adrenaline (not to mention staying alive), you make your way up and down the mountains in a leisurely, low-speed manner.

The skinny and winding nature of mountain roads in Costa Rica assures that travel is slow-going but it also makes the drive quite pleasant and allows you to spot birds like Blue-crowned Motmot, Blue-gray tanager, or Band-tailed Pigeon (just a few of the species I saw from the car on Sunday). Since distances are short, it doesn’t take too long to get from A to B. A greater problem, however, is presented by “traditional” roads that were never paved or who have allied with the elements to reject asphalt and literally shed their modernized surface for a return to old-fashioned, stony ways. These are the roads that require four-wheel drive and even then are better left to oxcarts, mountain-bikes, and lunar vehicles. Oh, they are also good for walking and this is exactly what you should do for visiting Barva.

The benefits of leaving your car at one of the houses that charges 1,000 colones (two bucks) for parking once you reach the end of the pavement are ample exercise, nice birding, and relief from wondering if an axle on your vehicle will snap in two.  I think it’s about a mile to the ranger station and the uphill hike passes through cloud forest patches,

birding Costa Rica

pastures dotted with old growth oaks,

and nice forest once you pass the limits for the national park. You can see most of the bird species that occur in the area on the way up (including Resplendent Quetzal- I saw 3 on Sunday!) and the double whammy of less oxygen and uphill walking will fulfill your exercise requirements for the next two weeks. This will also assure that you stop more frequently which will in turn result in more bird sightings.

birding Costa Rica

Misty weather made for silhouette photos of the quetzals- its profile reminds me of a cross between a pigeon and a raptor.

Once you make it to the ranger station, for the usual park fee of $10 (1,000 colones for residents), you can extend your hike even further to a high elevation lagoon or walk a beautiful trail that loops through old growth oak forest. Or, if you are tired of walking, just hang out in the peaceful glade at the ranger station and watch birds, meditate, practice Tai Chi, or have a picnic. Please don’t tarnish the place by doing a Sudoku however- those Japanese number puzzles should be left for the plan ride home or if you have to wait in line at a Tico bank.

birding Costa Rica

The peaceful and birdy glade at Volcan Barva, Costa Rica.

As of Sunday, there was one picnic table that could still be used (the high elevation bath of mist, rain, and fog has finally compromised the structure of the other one such that sitting on it is no longer an option) and most of the area’s birds could show up in the surrounding high elevation forest.

Fruiting bushes attracted glittering Spangle-cheeked Tanagers,

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers (here a dusky youngster),

Black and Yellow Silky

and more conservatively attired (but just as regionally endemic) Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager

Mixed flocks came through the area on a regular basis and were comprised of the three frugivorous birds mentioned above plus

Yellow-winged Vireo- here placing a twig between itself and the camera to thwart my attempts at digitally capturing this relative of the Hutton’s Vireo (I’ll get its soul next time),

Yellow-winged Vireo

Flame-throated Warbler- look for the reddish spot in the photo to find this beautiful, hyperactive bird,

Flam-throated Warbler

lots of Yellow-thighed Finches,

Yellow-thighed Finch

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the only woodcreeper up in here,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper

Collared Redstart- perhaps the cutest of Costa Rican birds,

Collared Redstart

Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ochraceous Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black-cheeked Warblers in the undergrowth, Wilson’s and Black-throated Green-Warblers, and maybe a few other species.

I also saw Black Guan, White-collared Swift scything the air with its wings, three nightingale-thrush species, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Long-tailed Silky, Large-footed Finch, Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, and Blue and white Swallow.

I didn’t walk up to Barva this past Sunday but will make the hike on my next visit because the final, unpaved section of the road is just too rough on the car. Trekking uphill with birding equipment will train me for future big days in any case and as I trudge my way up the mountain, I can also test my hypothesis that more birds are seen the slower one goes.

Most visitors birding Costa Rica probably won’t make it to Barva because the same species occur on the more easily accessible Cerro de la Muerte. It is ideal, however, for mixing hiking or mountain biking with birding.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

Cloud forest birding in Costa Rica: birds in the mist

In the wet lowlands, it’s always humid and the rain can arrive as a steady misting sprinkle or as (most often) as a sudden downpour with billions of huge drops that pound the zinc roofs with sodden fury. It’s so wet that if you don’t make an effort to dry out the clothes in your closet, your wardrobe will be supporting its very own ecosystem of molds and fungi (I once had mushrooms growing on my backpack in Amazonian Ecuador). If you visit the rainy, lower elevations of Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean Slope where 6 meters per year can fall (that’s about 18 feet for us metric illiterate Americans), you can expect to get wet even with an umbrella or poncho but you probably won’t have to worry about fog.

For that, you have to head upslope into the cloud forest. Just as humid as the rainforests of the lowlands but with cooler temperatures, this is where the clouds that water the lowlands  like to hang out. With a blanket of thick moisture blocking the sun and providing a constant aerial mist that waters an amazing abundance of plants, living is this life zone is probably like residing in a rather cool, shaded greenhouse. It would be challenging to deal with the constant moisture but you could cultivate orchids instead of roses would also have a heck of an interesting yard list. At least this is how my birding friend Janet Peterson and I felt while birding the Varablanca area last week.

Inspired by Skutch’s accounts of studying Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the same area, we searched for fruiting Lauraceae tree species that might attract these fancy, uncommon birds. Although we didn’t get lucky in finding a single fruiting Lauraceae, nor did we hear a single bellbird, it was still a beautiful day of birding in Costa Rica.

Deforestation since Skutch’s time equates to fewer bellbirds and cotingas but a lot more meadowlarks.

The views up there were stunning.

One of our best spots was at a site along the road between Poas and Varablanca not too far from the Poas Volcano Lodge. While the smells of home-cooked food and the usual sounds of rural Costa Rica (chickens clucking, roosters crowing, a dog or two barking, someone hammering, a bit of music) reached our ears from nearby houses, we watched a fair variety of cloud forest species in trees that grew out of a ravine next to the road. This meant that we could look straight into the canopy of these trees but because we were in the cloud forest life zone, we mostly watched birds through a shifting veil of mist.

Band-tailed Pigeons were common. We could hear them flapping their way around but they rarely landed within view. Maybe this one felt safe because it thought it was blending into its cloudy surroundings.

There were also a few Dark Pewees around.

Other birds were building nests nearby such as the Mountain Elaenia. This has to be one of the most common highland flycatchers. They thrive in edge habitats and sometimes seem to outnumber Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Our favorite sighting, though, was of a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were building a nest in a bromeliad on a nearby tree. You almost always hear this little gem before you see it and when birding in dense forest often don’t see it at all. They make a soft, short whistled call that is easy to imitate and often brings them in close. Due to their cloud forest habitat, their brilliant emerald, powder blue, and bright yellow plumage often looks as muted as their call until the mist lifts and they suddenly shine like some incredible forest jewel.

A female in the mist.

And a male in the mist.

The male Chlorophonia trying to blend in with a bromeliad.

And then as the mist lifted a bit, the male’s colors became more bright.

Other birds in the vicinity were Wilson’s Warbler (a common winter resident of the highlands),

Slate-throated Redstart,

and Flame-colored Tanager.

Mountain Robins provided a background soundtrack throughout the morning. To me, they sound more like some type of yellowthroat than a thrush. Click the following link to listen to one that singing at the ravine:  mountainrobin1

Past the ravine, we ventured down the Cinchona road a bit. The road is good up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens but beyond that is officially closed because of the threat of landslides. Despite a large, obvious sign that warned of the danger, a number of cars and motorcycles just drove right on past on their way to the lowlands. I suspect that one could drive the road all the way to Sarapiqui, but why risk your life? Stick to birding the upper part like we did and you should see a good number of species in any case. Some of the other good birds we saw were:

Resplendent Quetzal- one heard and a female seen as it flew across the road near Carrizal,

Blue-throated (Emerald) Toucanet- several of these beautiful birds,

Prong-billed Barbet,

Green Violetear and Coppery-headed Emerald at flowering Inga species,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper,

Red-faced Spinetail,

Tufted Flycatcher,

and Spangle-cheeked Tanager,

Although we didn’t see any cotingas, I bet they are still up there somewhere. Hopefully I will figure out where the fruiting Lauraceae are on my next visit to the area.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal

It may be revered in Guatemala and grace cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, but the easiest place to see Resplendent Quetzal has got to be Costa Rica. You can definitely watch them at highland sites in Chiapas, Mexico but there aren’t too many places that are readily accessible where the birds are common. The extensive highland forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may hold the largest numbers of quetzals, but much of these forests are inaccessible, and only a few sites with little infrastructure can be visited. In western Panama, like Costa Rica, it’s not too difficult to see Resplendent Quetzal because of good tourist infrastructure (roads, trails, guides, information, accommodation) in excellent habitat. This is only in the westernmost part of Panama, though, whereas in Costa Rica, Resplendent Quetzals can be found in cloud forests nearly throughout the country.

Quetzals in Costa Rica even occur in the mountains that overlook the central valley although most birders see them in one of two places: 1. Monteverde, or 2. on Cerro de la Muerte.

Quetzals at Monteverde aren’t very common but there are always some around and guides for the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves usually know where some of the birds are.You might even see a quetzal or two along the road up to the Monteverde reserve but it’s always easier to see them with a guide. The reason for this is because quetzals are often found near their preferred food source of “wild avocados” and guides will know where and when these trees are in fruit, and may also know the whereabouts of a nest.

On Cerro de la Muerte, most people go to the Mirador de Quetzales or San Gerardo de Dota. The Mirador de Quetzales is located just off of the main road before reaching the turn-off to San Gerardo. Take the quetzal tour, and the owner (Eddie Serrano?) will bring you to fruiting wild avocados for typically fantastic views of one or several quetzals.

Further up the main road is the turn-off for San Gerardo de Dota, a small community in a deep valley not too far from the summit. It takes about two and a half hours to drive there from San Jose and vehicles descending into the valley may need four wheel drive to get back out during the rainy season. This may not be true but that’s the way it looked to me when I was there last month. If you stay in the valley, I’m sure your hotel will give you the best assessment of the driving situation.

Descending to San Gerardo de Dota.

This is the valley where hundreds of birders have seen their first Resplendent Quetzal while lodging at Savegre Lodge, Trogon Lodge, Dantica, or a few other hotels in the area. All of these hotels offer morning quetzal tours. You could also follow the signs for “observacion de quetzales” and pay to see quetzals, or, if you get up there early enough, you can drive along the road through the valley and just stop when you see a crowd of tourists staring at something in the trees. They will almost certainly be looking at a quetzal but you usually have to do this in the morning because if they aren’t looking at a nest, the quetzals may fly off to visit fruiting trees away from the road.

Looking at a Resplendent Quetzal.

To our extreme good fortune, on a short trip to the Dota Valley in search of quetzals a few weeks ago, there was a pair nesting very close to the road. We found the nest thanks to a couple of photographers who were lingering at one spot along the road. Upon arrival, of course the quetzal has “just left” but so what- we knew it had to come back to feed its hidden youngsters some wild avocados. I think we waited around 15 minutes when sure enough, a male quetzal gave its cackling vocalization (yes, the males cackle) and flew overhead, its long tail feathers streaming behind. About five minutes later, things got much, much better as it flew down closer to the nest and paused near the entrance before hopping inside.

Notice the green avocado in its bill. No, it doesn’t look like the avocados we are used to because its a wild one- a fruit of some Lauraceae species.

After hopping inside, its tail feathers were so long that they stuck out of the hole and waved in the breeze!

Eventually and luckily for us, the male had to have a look at us. He was apparently intrigued because he sat there for about 15 minutes and let us take a ridiculous number of  pictures. Here are a few of mine:


After leaving the hole, he then flew to a perch to show off his incredible, iridescent plumage….

and sallied close to the ground for raspberries! Here is a bad action shot as he takes off from his perch.

The female eventually showed up too but by then the battery for my camera had run out. At least I got pictures of the male though!

The places I mentioned are the easiest sites to see Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica because they are easy to get to, and there are usually some people around who know where to find these sacred birds. Keep in mind though, that they also occur in most areas of good, highland forest such as along the trails at La Georgina, other areas in the high Talamancas, up on the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes, and other sites. It might take a while to see them at those other sites though and could be tough without a guide but the birding will always be good in any case.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Barva Volcano Birding in Costa Rica

Last weekend, I finally got the chance to visit the Barva Sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park after years of hoping to check out this site. Despite seeing its welcoming, jade-green vegetation beckoning from a distance on a daily basis, I hadn’t become acquainted with the upper reaches of Barva Volcano because of the difficulties in accessing this mountain with public transportation. Last weekend, though, a friend of mine who teaches at the European School was bringing a group of students up to Barva for some hiking and had one extra space in the bus. My friend graciously offered me that coveted little seat and I finally got the chance to see the Barva Sector for some recon and birding.

Meeting up at the European School in San Pablo de Heredia (you always have to mention the “de Heredia” part because there might also be a “San Pablo de Cartago” or “de Limon” or “de who knows what else”), the old, riparian growth behind the school contrasted with the nearby car-exhausted streets and over-profusion of concrete to provide a sanctuary for birds and other animals that somehow manage to hang on in the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers called from the undergrowth while Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers complained about the White-tailed Kite that was conspicuously perched at the top of a bare tree. The resemblance this raptor has to a gull during flight never fails to impress me. Really, if you think you see a gull anywhere inland in Costa Rica, it’s probably one of those graceful White-tailed Kites. Although this will sound like an extreme non-event to most birders, I also got my first Mourning Dove of the year. These aren’t too common in Costa Rica and I needed it for my Big Year (which is coming along slowly yet steadily).

After waiting for the few compulsory late students, our bus joined the stream of traffic moving through Heredia and made our way towards Barva Volcano. Not to be confused with the volcano (although like the roads here it is certainly confusing), we passed through the town of Barva and followed the brown volcano signs on curvy roads that threaded their way uphill through coffee plantations. I wish I could tell you which roads we actually took but since no roads are signed, all I can suggest is that you follow the brown volcano signs, or better yet use a GPS. Some of the rental cars have fantastic GPS systems that show your car moving along Costa Rica’s confusing labyrinth of roads- I personally wish I had one of those showing me walking through the maze of streets. That way I could faithfully walk with purpose to my destination instead of walking with purpose to the next pulperia to ask for directions that are usually about as sound as Costa Rica’s active fault lines.

After around 40 minutes of ascending through pastures, coffee plantations, and patches of cloud forest that would be worth birding, we stopped when the asphalt gave out. My friend then informed us that the hiking was to commence! Three ks uphill to the ranger station and then on into the park. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep up with those energy-filled adolescents because I simply couldn’t. They seemed to race on uphill through the rarified, 2,000 plus meter air while I slowly trudged up the road wishing that I had an oxygen tank. Although I was carrying a scope and more gear than them, I discovered that I was much more out of shape than I had realized! This was not a happy discovery but at least moving more slowly meant that I had a better chance at getting bird pics. Well, that’s what I thought until in addition to this self realization that I needed to exercise more often, I also found out during the course of the day that highland birds are far from sluggish. On the contrary, most are dowright hyperactive which makes them very difficult to get pictures of (hence the general lack of photos in this post).

Although the birds were tough to photograph, at least the scenery was nice. From this high vantage point, I could see the dreadful extent of urbanization that has occurred in the Central Valley and be grateful for the fresh, mountain scented air.

The walk up those three ks to the ranger station was OK for birding in pastures with remnant, massive oak trees but got better once the high elevation forests of the park were reached. Species I had on the way up were flybys of Band-tailed Pigeons, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Blue and white Swallow, Mountain Robin, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstarts, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and a whole mess of Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Cool, massive, oak tree at least 300 years old.

One of the many Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Slim pickings overall really with the most interesting birds being Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds concentrated around a large flowering bush.

Here is a nice, little female Volcano Hummingbird.

The area around the station was pleasant for birding and just hanging out. There were a few picnic tables amidst good, high elevation habitat. As at most high elevation sites in Costa Rica, a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush was hopping around and being friendly (I love friendly birds- they get named extra-friendly when they pose for pictures).

Extra friendly Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.

Many other birds came to the ranger station and although I didn’t see any Quetzals, I am sure they show up now and then. From the ranger station, the road gently ascends to lagoons, an overlook, and a couple of trails. I never made it to the lagoons as I took the “Cacho de Venado” trail. The trail was beautiful and the birding good in high elevation forest with sections of interesting elfin forest.

Main trail for Barva.

High elevation forests always have this enchanting, mystical appeal for me. Whether it’s the pleasant climate, lack of mosquitoes, or lack of oxygen that makes you think you are seeing birds that never existed, a visit is always thrilling (at least during rare, nice weather). The huge, old trees are covered in moss and some look like the “dark side of the force” tree on Dagobah.

Dagobah-like tree sans visions of Darth Vader or the far scarier Jar Jar Binks.

Striking red bromeliad- an adaptation for the high UV index typical of high elevations in the tropics.

On Barva, the tinkling calls of Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers filtered down from the canopy while Black-faced Solitaires sang their beautiful, etheral songs from the understory. Mixed flocks were pretty common and included quite a few Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers. Here is a young one that was friendly.

Other bird species I saw or heard in the forest and at the station were Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo (just one), Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous Wren, Black-cheeked Warbler, Zeledonia (one heard), Spangled-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches (too hyperactive to be friendly), and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

This young Chlorophonia was friendly enough.

We left Barva when as it started to rain around 1 P.M. Although I would love to visit the peaceful, quiet woods of Barva again, it probably won’t happen until we get a car. By then, though, we should be living in nearby Santa Barbara de Heredia and so might visit on a regular basis.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds; Identification Issues

Last weekend, I escaped the Central Valley to guide the BCCR (Birding Club of Costa Rica) trip to Baru near Dominical. The drive to Dominical is always interesting as the most direct route from San Jose traverses the high Talamancan mountains. Once you find your way to Cartago (which would be fairly easy if the signs were located a few blocks before the turn-offs instead of after them) and get on the road to San Isidro, the highway quickly ascends the fantastic Talamancan Mountain Range. Although the scenery is nice, it is particularly fantastic because most of this rugged cordillera is cloaked in high elevation rain forest. Just after departing Cartago, the road passes through and near beautiful cloud forest that probably holds a bunch of rare birds. Although there isn’t any good way to bird it from the highway, at least Tapanti National Park provides access to this forest type for excellent birding.

As the road twists and turns its way up Cerro de la Muerte (the name of this mountain), it passes through interesting looking stands of lichen covered Alders and old growth oak forests with an amazing profusion of epiphytes, mosses, and bromeliads on their branches, and passes by the turn-off to San Gerardo de Dota- the valley where most birders stay when ticking high elevation Talamancan endemics. Further on, the highway passes by the entrance to the Paraiso de Quetzales (Quetzal Paradise) where Eddie Serrano can take you on a short tour to see Resplendent Quetzals. He also has cabins now, but like several places, has unfortunately raised prices over the past few years.

Still ascending, the highway reaches its highest points in the paramo zone above the treeline (aside from visiting the Irazu crater, this area is the most accessible site for Volcano Junco). About 15 minutes (?) after the paramo, La Georgina is found on the left side of the road. This roadside diner offers good, traditional food and even better high elevation birding. A steep trail behind the place goes through primary forest and harbors all high elevation forest species of the Talamancas, while the feeders just outside the windows of the diner provide opportunities for studying Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. Although Volcano Hummingbirds and Gray-tailed Mountain-gems are present, they mostly stick to the garden and forest, leaving the feeders to the two larger species. Similar in size, Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds can look quite similar as they both have long, straight bills, and a small, white, postocular spot. Feeders, though, at least provide the opportunity to study the differences between these two high elevation hummingbird species.

Structurally, the Fiery-throated is daintier with a more needle-like bill,

while the Magnificent is a bit more grandiose because of its larger bill size.

A close look at the bills also reveals one of the easiest ways to separate them. Note the reddish on the lower mandible of this Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

while that of the Magnificent is entirely black.

Of course the color differences seem to be obvious too but like most hummingbirds, the colors you see depend upon how the light is reflected off of their feathers. At first, none of these birds showed these glittering plumages that resemble finely jeweled chain mail. They just looked like large, dark hummingbirds until the flash of the camera revealed their colorful secrets.

Another way to separate them when their colors aren’t evident, is by the more defined gorget that the Magnificent shows. Even if this patch of beryl-green is not visible, the gorget stands out as a darker throat, something that the Fiery-throated lacks. It also lacks the distinctive face pattern shown by the female Magnificent.

Our stop at La Georgina was a short one, but I will make up for that by visiting soon to get all the high elevation species needed for my BIG YEAR.