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A Bird Count on Poas

Poas is the name of the volcano that I can see off to the northwest of my home. It’s an obvious stand-alone mountain that is usually topped by clouds. On sunny days, though, close scrutiny of its upper reaches reveals a distinct, flat appearance. That flat part is the edge of the crater and marks the place where most people go when they visit the volcano. As for myself, I rarely go up that high but instead focus on the road up to around the gate of the national park because high elevation birds are more exciting to watch than the crater (since I am a birder and not a crater watcher or vulcanologist- a much more dangerous pastime). Since I can get up to Poas and vicinity quicker than other areas with good habitat, I bird and guide around there with some regularity. I also do an annual breeding bird count and this is nice because it forces me to head up there by 5 in the morning.

Although the afternoon birding on Poas tends to be great, that early hour does give a good idea of what’s flying around those high elevation habitats. In this case, that would be pastures with scattered, epiphyte drenched oaks, temperate zone forest, moist subtropical forest fragments mixed with non-native Guatemalan Cypress, and nice remnant cloud forest in riparian zones that are connected to larger blocks of forest. I start the count at the Volcan Restaurant, end it up near the main gates to the park and hear lots of birds in between. I also see some here and there but as with the majority of bird counts, almost everything is found by sound.

One of the most common birds is the Mountain Elaenia. I think I got more of these birds than any other species at every point.

An inquisitive Mountain Elaenia.

As you can see, this is a typically nondescript flycatcher. It will remind you of an Empid but looks even less distinctive than the resident Black-capped Flycatcher. I suppose White-throated Flycatcher could also show up around Poas but I haven’t seen it there yet.

The first few stops yielded several yodeling Prong-billed Barbets and hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders at the Volcan Restaurant. While guiding there yesterday, just after saying that I had never seen a Scintillant Hummingbird at the restaurant but that they could occur, up pops a rufous-flanked, excellent candidate. After closely inspecting the bird, I called it as a young male Scintillant on account of the mostly rufous tail with narrow subterminal band, rufous flanks sans green, lack of a thin rufous line that goes from the eye to the bill, and a couple of coppery orange feathers on the gorget (which is why I called it a young male although who knows, maybe it’s a female).

Scintillant Hummingbird in Costa Rica at the Volcan Restaurant.

One hummingbird species missed during the count but seen while guiding was a Stripe-tailed. Since this is the least common of the 7 regularly occurring species at their feeders, I was quite pleased to see it.

Female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

Other uncommon species that were recorded during the count were:

  • Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl- Pretty rare in the area but occurs.
  • Resplendent Quetzal- Had one female. They are around but tough to find unless you can locate some fruiting, wild avocados.
  • Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- There were a few calling from the more intact forest on the higher part of the road.
  • Elegant Euphonia- Nice surprise as it seems to be pretty rare around there.
  • Yellow-bellied Siskin- As mundane as a goldfinch might seem to be, this was the rarest bird species from the count. Trapping this bird for cages has eliminated it from many parts of the mountains above the Central Valley.

Species found at nearly every stop included Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher (Poas is a great area for this sleek bird), Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Common Bush Tanager, Band-tailed Pigeon (because they seem to always be flying overhead), and Slate-throated Redstart. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush is also very common in the Poas area. I saw lots as they came out to feed on the road at dawn.

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Here is one pretending to be some kind of Old World bush-robin.

Mountain Thrushes were also coming out onto the road and flying all over the place. No pics of them because they suffer from FNS (flighty nervous syndrome). Sooty Robins don’t though, and once I got up into the temperate zone, they were taking center stage all along the road.

They were perched on fence posts.
Showing off their staring white eyes.
And trying to stare me down!

After losing the staring contest with this Blackbirdish (the Palearctic one) looking thrush, I saw a bunch of other high elevation birds. Bright orange mistletoe was being visited by Green Violetears, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems.

This beautiful mistletoe species is a common sight in high elevation forests of Costa Rica.
I also saw a few Flame-throated Warblers.
And found a Fiery-throated Hummingbird nest.

No bamboo birds this year and not as many quetzals are around but the birding is still always nice and easy around Poas.

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VaraBlanca- Overlooked Costa Rican Birding Hotspot

Birding hotspots don’t just earn that claim to fame for the bird species that show up. While rarities and high quality species are certainly part of the hotspot equation, other factors also determine a site’s eligibility on the hotspot scale. For example, in Costa Rica, we can surmise that birding in the middle of large national parks like Braulio Carillo, Corcovado, and Tortuguero would probably be one of your more exciting days of Costa Rica birding. However, the inaccessible nature of the core areas of those parks makes them ineligible for the hotspot list.

A hotspot should be relatively easy to get to, host more bird species than other sites or certain rarities tough to find elsewhere, and be consistent with the quality experience it delivers. It’s a bit like a five-star hotel or restaurant- you go there because you expect a certain level of service or experience based on consistently good times had by others, especially when those “others” are experts replete with seasoned knowledge. Carara National Park fits this definition of a hotspot in every sense of the word. Most birders who go there see lots of great birds on every visit, in being located along a main highway, it couldn’t be easier to get to, and you consistently come away from the trails with a fine list of quality species.

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Carara is one of the easiest sites for Great Tinamou.

Quebrada Gonzalez also earns hotspot status, albeit a lesser known one on account of the typically challenging birding, especially for tour groups. Many tours pay a brief visit to the place in the hopes of seeing some foothill specialty or catching up with an amazing mixed flock but none stay for the entire day. That’s reasonable given the slow periods and tough forest birding, but walk the same trail twice during a day of birding and you will be surprised at what you find. When I do that, I usually find foothill specialties missed during the morning, run into more mixed flocks, and just see more rare birds in general. It takes time but the birds eventually come out of the woodwork.


The Lattice-tailed Trogon is one of the regular species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

A third type of hotspot is the one that is overlooked. It usually gets passed by because the regular tours either aren’t aware of the birding opportunities or don’t think it’s worth their while. These are the hotspots that are found by local birders because they have the time to check them out on a regular basis and they can be surprisingly close to the San Jose area.  One such hotspot is Varablanca and surroundings. Situated on the saddle between the Barva and Poas volcanoes, it’s strategic location on the continental divide and makes for an excellent base to use on a birding trip. The birding potential of the Varablanca area is made apparent when you consider that I routinely get over 100 species on day tours there. The following are some of the other reasons why Varablanca is probably one of the best overlooked hotspots in Costa Rica:

1. Access: Varablanca is on one of the main routes between the Central Valley and the Caribbean lowlands (route 5) and because of this, can be reached by good roads from the San Jose area in an hour or so. Several public buses also use this route. Get there by heading up through Barva and Santa Barbara or follow the signs to Poas Volcano from Alajuela and then follow signs towards Poas Volcano Lodge. When you come to a small gas station with a turn off to Sarapiqui and the Waterfall Gardens, you have reached Varablanca central.

2. Infrastructure: Lodging ranges from several mid-priced cabinas like the cozy and friendly Poas Lodge to more expensive, just as friendly accommodation at the beautiful Poas Volcano Lodge. There are small stores in the area and restaurants include everything from small family diners to Colbert, one of the better French restaurants in the country (yes, it is damn good and very well priced).

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The quaint Cabanas Varablanca have good rooms for a great price.

3. Good habitat right around Varablanca: While the immediate habitat around Varablanca might look patchy, don’t be fooled into thinking that the area around your lodging isn’t worth birding. For example, when our local birding club stayed at the Cabinas Varablanca, we were pleasantly surprised by Prong-billed Parbet, Emerald Toucanet, both silky-flycatchers, Spangle-cheeked tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Yellow-thighed Finches, and several other cloud forest species in the second growth right behind the cabins. That second growth is connected to better forest in a hidden ravine that is in turn connected to forest on Volcan Barva and I bet it holds a lot more surprises (like the singing Yellow-bellied Siskin I had around there in March).

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Chlorophonias are fairly common in the area.

4. A variety of other habitats and birding sites: Don’t just bird around Varablanca. The main reason this area is a hotspot is because it can be used to easily access various quality habitats that host hundreds of bird species.

High elevation forest on Poas is good for Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Vireo, and most highland specialties including R. Quetzal, Sooty Robin, and may even offer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are especially common at high elevations on Poas.

Cloud forest is accessible at  sites on the way to Poas. One of the best is at the Volcan Restaurant. Check out the hummingbirds coming to their feeders and watch for a wide assortment of cloud forest species in the middle elevation forest around the restaurant. The place can sees daily visits by Resplendent Quetzal in March and April when the many wild avocados are in fruit.

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A Magnificent Hummingbird at the Volcan Restaurant feeders.

Cloud forest can also be birded on the way to Cinchona and has Barred Becard, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, and hundreds of other possibilities. The area around the Peace Lodge can be especially good and if you want to pay the $30 entrance fee, you will see some of the best hummingbird action in the country as well as near guaranteed Sooty-faced Finch.

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At Cinchona, stop at the Hummingbird cafe for close looks at middle elevation species like Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Head a bit further down and roadside birding above the Virgen del Socorro canyon can yield fantastic mixed flocks of tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, and even rarities like Lovely Cotinga (saw a male there earlier this year, and I routinely get Black-crested Coquette, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and other foothill birds).

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What the habitat looks like above Virgen del Socorro.

Head into the Virgen del Socorro canyon and you can run into more mixed flocks, might pick up Immaculate Antbird, and have a chance at dozens of quality species including Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers.

Keep following the road up out of the canyon, head to the right to pass by the Albergue del Socorro (or stay there) and you can bird in excellent middle elevation forest all the way back up to the village of San Rafael and meet back up with Route 5 maybe 5 or 6 ks before Varablanca. This little-birded road goes through habitat connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park and can probably turn up just about every middle elevation species possible. Some of the extra good birds I have had there during a few visits are Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Brown-billed Scythebill, Lattice-tailed Trogon, and White-crowned Manakin.

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Awesome middle elevation forest indeed.

Even the Sarapiqui lowlands aren’t that far away from Varablanca. If you drive straight there, it might take 40 minutes to an hour. The Eco-observatory and Tirimbina are two of the best Sarapiqui birding sites that are fairly close to Varablanca.

Looking for Snowy Cotinga from the Eco-Observatory deck (we saw one).

5. Rarities and quality species: Given that quality high elevation, middle elevation, and lowland forest are all within striking range from Varablanca, there are really too many quality birds to mention. Literally hundreds of species are possible including Great Green Macaw (in Sarapiqui for much of the year and around Virgen del Socorro from at least September to November), Sunbittern, R. Quetzal, Black Guan, various raptors, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and loads of hummingbirds and tanagers. Seeding bamboo in 2012 also turned up Barred Parakeet, Slaty Finch, and lots of Peg-billed Finch.

This Black Guan was right on the main road between Varablanca and Cinchona.

Had the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal on most trips to Poas this year.

If you are looking for a great base for birding most elevations on the Caribbean slope, in my opinion, Varablanca is one of the best options. Not to mention, the scenery is pretty nice too.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction

Identification Tips When Birding Costa Rica: Small, Plain Hummingbirds Species

Hummingbirds are known for their glittering, jewel-like plumage, ad feisty, sprite-like behavior. I’m not sure if they had anything to do with being part of the inspiration for Disney’s Tinkerbell character but she sure acts like one of the Trochilidae. On a near constant sugar high, more than 50 species of hummingbirds zip around Costa Rica in search of that next nectar fix. Given the high hummingbird diversity, their restless behavior, and their minute size, hummingbirds also come with their own set of identification issues. Get a good look and you can identify most without too much of a problem but there are a few that cause ID headaches and be harbingers of frustration.

Birders familiar with the hummingbird ID challenge in western North America have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that hummingbirds can bring to the ID table and may even be cringing at the thought of 50 plus species to sort through. Ironically, though, despite the greater variety of hummingbird species in Costa Rica compared to northern hotspots like Arizona and New Mexico, it’s a lot more difficult to identify hummingbirds in those places than Tiquicia. Nevertheless, there are still a few species that can throw monkey wrenches into the works and four that have a tendency to confuse are females of Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Volcano Hummingbird, and Scintillant Hummingbird. In my opinion, even those aren’t as tough as the likes of the Calliope/Anna’s/Costa’s, etc conundrum but it’s still nice to have some help in identifying them so without further ado, here are some tips:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: With their dark, forked tails, white spot behind the eye, and dark red gorget, males are pretty straightforward. Duller plumaged females, though, are always throwing visiting birders for a loop until they realize that Ruby-throateds are a common wintering species in many areas of the Pacific slope and that there is almost nothing else in the country that looks like them. The closest things are the much larger Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (also has a more decurved bill, is duller, and has larger white spots in the tail), female Canivet’s Emerald (white stripe behind the eye and more white in tail), and the female Mangrove Hummingbird (plainer, lacks white spot behind the eye).  Although it’s worth it to check every, small hummingbird on the Pacific slope with whitish underparts, most are going to be female Ruby-throated Hummmingbirds.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Note the white spot behind the eye, whitish underparts, slightly decurved bill, a hint of a “semi-collar”, and a bit of white in the tail.

Magenta-throated Woodstar: While the male is pretty easy to identify with his longish tail and white spots on the lower back, the female can be a source of confusion for visiting birders. Like the male, she hangs out at flowerbeds and flowering trees in middle elevations in many parts of the country but tends to be uncommon. The best places to study this species are at feeders in the Monteverde area and at El Toucanet Lodge in the Talamancas. Like the male, the female Magenta-throated Woodstar also cocks up the tail when feeding but the best way to identify this species is by noting the two white spot on the flanks/lower back and the orangish belly.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Female Magenta-throated Woodstars

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Note the long tail on this young male Magenta-throated Woodstar.

Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds: Keeping with the Selasphorous tradition, this and the following species probably present the most consistent challenge to hummingbird identification in the country. Tiny and very similar, you have to get a good look at the tail to be sure of their identification. They actually tend not to be found together but can certainly overlap at sites with an elevation of 2,000 meters. The Volcano isn’t restricted to volcanoes but since so many mountains in Costa Rica are actually sleeping, fiery-breathing geological giants, the name kind of rings true at many sites. The Scintillant isn’t any more shiny than most of its Trochilid brethren but what the heck, it’s a cool sounding name anyways! The orangeish gorget of male Scintillants separates them from Volcanoes in most areas (although male Volcano Hummingbirds on Poas have slightly similar pinkish gorgets) but a close look at the tail is the best way to identify females. Volcano Hummingbirds have green central rectrices while those of Scintillants are rufous. Both species also have dark subterminal bands but this characteristic is broader in Volcanoes. Volcano hummingbirds also have less rufous on the underparts and tend to show a thin, rufous eyebrow that extends to the chin (although that field mark may vary by subspecies). Get a good look at the tail, though, and the bird’s identification will be obvious.

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The green on the tail is evident in this Volcano Hummingbird even at a distance.

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Here’s a closer look at a Volcano- note the rather greenish flanks and green on the tail.

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And here’s a female Volcano Hummingbird that was nice enough to spread its tail and show that prominent subterminal band.

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Note the rufous on the flanks of this female Scintillant Hummingbird from El Toucant Lodge and the mostly rufous tail with a small subterminal band.

Snowcap: The male is a stunning little piece of work but the female is about as colorless as they come. Whitish below and greenish above, female Snowcaps are pretty darn basic. However, since almost nothing else fist that description in their foothill distribution, if you see a small hummingbird with white underparts in a place like Quebrada Gonzalez, you will have to admit that you latched your eyes onto a female Snowcap. About the only other hummingbird species that she could be confused with in her range might be a female Coppery-headed Emerald that decided to wander downslope (not unheard of at the upper limits of Snowcap distribution). Both have white in the tail but the Snowcap still shows a straight bill (decurved in the case of the emerald) and none of the green on the sides of the upper breast that female emeralds exhibit.

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Female Snowcap

birding Costa Rica

Female Coppery-headed Emerald

To sum things up, identification of some of the small hummingbirds in Costa Rica isn’t as difficult as one might think but you might want to hire a guide anyways because finding them could be another story.

Check the Costa Rica Living and Birding Blog on a regular basis For more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.

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The Hummingbird Garden Near San Ramon

On the underbirded, super birdy route between San Ramon and La Fortuna, one of the many sites of interest is the Bosque Nuboso El Cocora Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden. It’s just a 20 minute ride from San Ramon to this sweet little site and even a short visit is well worth the $6 entrance fee. I visited a few days ago while guiding a client in the area and it turned out to be a fitting end to a morning of near non-stop bird action on the road to Manuel Brenes (that mixed flock madness merits its own account!).

I was happy to see that this little ecotourist attraction had invested in its infrastructure and built a small cafe and improved the hummingbird feeding area. The cafe serves typical Costa Rican food at fair prices and is a great place to have a coffee while watching Swallow-tailed Kites do their aerial ballet. As for the hummingbirds, I suspect that the number of species varies over the course of the year but you can always be guaranteed a fantastic frenzy of those little feathered dynamos. On that most recent visit, our most abundant hummingbird was the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald. They looked like white-tailed bugs as they went crazy with the feeders.

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Male Coppery-headed Emerald.

There were a few Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, one of which guarded a lone feeder.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Stay away from my sugar water!

Beautiful Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were pretty common too.

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A couple of big Violet Sabrewings salso howed up to cause some purple havoc, male and female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems were nice to see and the excellent lighting turned the Green-crowned Brilliants into flying, glittering emeralds. A surprise Steely-vented Hummingbird also showed up and after a long wait, a female White-bellied Mountain-gem made her appearance for our final and eight hummingbird species. I was surprised that we only saw one as this uncommon near endemic has been one of the most frequent hummingbirds on past visits.  Given the number of hummingbirds that were zipping around, we could have easily missed something else as other days have also seen such species as Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear, and Violet-headed Hummingbird.

In addition to the hummingbirds, this site has a short trail through a patch of middle elevation forest. Its brief 200 meter length is one of the big downsides to this place (the other being the 9 am opening time, 12 noon on Sundays) but it’s still worth a visit. Although the “width” of the forest isn’t much and is flanked by pasture, its old growth aspect and connection to more extensive forests away from the road create a wealth of possibilities. We saw little on the most recent visit but did hear Black-faced Solitaire, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and saw Tawny-capped Euphonia and Slate-throated Redstart. In the past, I have seen goodies in there such as Rufous Motmot, Blue-and-gold Tanager, and Azure-hooded Jay. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it also harbored things like leaftossers or even Scaled Antpitta. It’s surely worth a careful look and might be worth it to hang out where the trail looks into the canopy until a mixed flock passes by or some cool ground bird pops into view.

Getting to El Cocora is also super easy. If driving, take the road towards La Fortuna from San Ramon. You will drive through a steep canyon right after leaving town, than pass through deforested areas that are frequently cloaked in fog. Not long after, you start to descend onto the Caribbean slope. Watch for signs to the place and look for it on the left (west) side of the road about 15-20 minutes out of San Ramon. It can also be reached by buses between San Ramon and La Tigra, San Lorenzo, and La Fortuna.

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Black-crested Coquette at El Tapir

El Tapir is a defunct butterfly garden (how many sites have that claim to fame?) a couple kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez on the right side of the highway as you head towards Limon. During the latter 90s it received a fair number of visitors and cabins were being built to provide accommodation for excited, happy birders. I don’t know if that was actually the goal for the cabins but excited, happy birders would have certainly been the outcome. The place is easily accessible, has the full complement of foothill specialties, good populations of other birds that require primary forest, acts as a good lookout for raptors, and has a bunch of Porterweed bushes that are one of the few reliable sites in the country Snowcap.

However, to visiting birders great misfortune, the cabins were never finished and El Tapir was let to its own devices. The buildings are falling down, you would never know that a beautiful little, enclosed butterfly garden used to grace the entrance to the place, and there aren’t any more souvenirs for sale. Nevertheless, despite it’s defunct appearance, El Tapir can still be visited, there are a few trails through the forest, and hummingbirds still show up at the Porterweed bushes. Many of those magic flowering hedges have been cleared from the garden for unknown reasons and this has diminished the numbers of hummingbirds that show up but the place still sees visits by most of the expected species.

This past Sunday, while guiding at El Tapir, we were entertained by one of the more uncommon hummingbird species to visit the garden, an exquisite male Black-crested Coquette. It came to one of the flowering Porterweed bushes near the caretaker’s house and he let us know every time it made an appearance. It buzzed in low like a bumblebee for fantastic, close looks…

Black-crested Coquette is so small that it can just about hide behind a Porterweed stem!

It slowly moved into view and showed off its fine-plumed crest.

Neither common, nor rare, like so many other tropical bird species with low density populations, the Black-crested Coquette is perhaps best described as “uncommon”. This means that they are probably in the neighborhood when visiting their habitat but could easily escape detection if you don’t find the right type of flowering trees. Other factors that make it that much more difficult to locate this species are their tendency to move up and down slope in search of food and their naturally inconspicuous behavior that aids them in poaching nectar from flowers in the territories of other, larger, nastier hummingbirds.

I don’t see this species that often at El Tapir so don’t be surprised if you go birding there and miss it. However, even if you miss the coquette, consolation prizes often come in the form of Snowcap, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. You might also run into some good mixed flocks, pick up foothill birds in the forest, see King Vulture, and even run into a tapir! On Sunday, we had all of the hummingbirds listed above along with White-necked Jacobin and Purple-crowned Fairy. A sunny day made for pretty quiet birding inside the forest but we still managed to see Spotted Antbird (also heard Bicolored and Ocellated), Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Speckled Tanager, and King Vulture.

If you do visit El Tapir, just ask the caretaker if you can enter and pay him $5 per person. On a side note, the forest looked much drier than normal this past week and that could be why we picked up a few ticks so put on the sulfur powder and wear rubber boots!

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What to Do When Birding in the Rain in Costa Rica

October is part of the official rainy season in Costa Rica. Each year, low pressure systems get together to stew up a massive dumping of water upon Costa Rica and other parts of Central America. The results often include landslides, flooding (albeit typically in floodplains), and lower temperatures. On a side note, I should add that much of the Caribbean slope is spared these 72 hour or more deluges from the sky. The sun still reigns during the morning hours over on the other side of the mountains and that’s where you should go when birding Costa Rica in October.

I was recently made aware of this wise piece of advice over the past weekend. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and test preparation fame came down for a short visit and I was happy to show him around. During the trip planning stage, I had mentioned that rain might be an issue but also that the near future was looking bright and so we didn’t expect too many weather-related problems. After all, the sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms of September and the first week of October were downright pleasant and predictable. It looked as if Mike could come on down, we could sweep up on regional endemics, and generally have a good, solid dose of non-stop, exciting birding. When you are optimistic, these sort of things run through your mind because you want them to come true. The only hitch is that they don’t necessarily reflect how things are going to turn out.

This past weekend, the rains were triumphant in the imaginary battle between optimism and weather conditions. The more I wished for sun, the harder it rained but in keeping with the determined, undaunted nature of the Zen-birding tradition (I don’t know what that really means but it sure sounds good), we failed to surrender arms! Ha! Even after Mike’s plane was delayed for more than 800 minutes (according to flightstatus.com), we surged on down to Carara shortly after his arrival. When we reached the second tool booth, we found out that the rains had thrown a landslide into our path to keep us from reaching Carara. No problem! We turned straight around and wove our way through the pot-holed maze of Central Valley streets to head up into the mountains. About 10 minutes past Alajuela, we were stopped by another road closure, this one related to the repair of downed power lines. No problem! The car was stopped and there was green space so we started birding. Spishing and pygmy-owl toots called a few species out of the woodwork and Mike got his second regional endemic in the form of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (Crimson-fronted Parakeet was the first).

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Not the Hoffmann’s we saw but I can assure that it looked just like this one.

No new birds popped up so we consulted the trusty GPS navigator and took another route towards Poas Volcano. It didn’t take long, though, for us to be confronted with a true, honest to goodness landslide.

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This is why motorbikes are popular in rural areas of Costa Rica.

Mist saturated the entire area (and hid a calling Flame-colored Tanager) so we took another route up the volcano. This time, we were successful in reaching a place where we could watch birds without getting soaked. Known as the “El Volcan” restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a tasty, home-cooked lunch accompanied by a nice selection of cloud forest hummingbirds. Despite the wet weather, we quickly tallied 7 species of hummingbirds.

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These included several Purple-throated Mountain-gems,

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a few Volcano Hummingbirds,

birding Costa Rica

and Violet Sabrewings.

Slaty Flowerpiercers also moved through the restaurant garden on one of their constant nectar filching missions, and forest on the other side of the street hosted Yellow-thighed Finches, Wilson’s Warblers, Red-faced Spinetail, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and other birds adapted to cool, misty, 2,000 meter climes. The restaurant was nice and dry but how could we stay when there were other birds to be seen higher up the road? We drove uphill and made occasional stops to search for birds. The constant, saturating mist and rain attempted to drown out my pygmy-owl imitation but I still managed to attract that hefty-billed beauty known as a Black-thighed Grosbeak. Golden-browed Chlorophonias also softly called from the canopy but refused to reveal themselves. As much as I attempted to ignore the rain while looking at Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Large-footed Finch, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, I couldn’t help but admit that the experience was akin to watching birds while taking a  cold shower. A quetzal might have given us enough internal birding power to stave off any and all discomfort but since none showed up, we headed back downhill and made our way to the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.

In conclusion, if you must go birding in Costa Rica during October, stick to the Caribbean slope because it’s drier there at this time of year. If circumstances or location make it impossible to avoid the rain, you can always go to the El Volcan Restaurant and watch the hummingbird action. Other highland species will also show up without being accompanied by a supposedly invigorating, warmth-sapping natural cold shower.  You could also immerse yourself into sudoku but that will keep you from seeing birds so leave those numeric puzzles at home or on the plane and just keep looking for birds!

The El Volcan restaurant is situated past Poasito, on the road up to Poas Volcano. Look for it on the left or west side of the road. It looks like this:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills Hummingbirds middle elevations

Birding El Copal Biological Reserve, Costa Rica in August

El Copal is this rather remote, community owned and run reserve situated between Tapanti National Park and Amistad International Park. Biogeographically speaking, it is located on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancan Mountains in the foothill/middle elevation zone. Birdingly speaking, this means that you are always in for one heck of an avian ride when visiting El Copal.

I guided a recent Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to El Copal this past weekend and although the ever elusive Lovely Cotinga failed to show, we still had some pretty awesome birding. Yes, our goal was actually Lovely Cotinga as mid-August is when a few have historically showed up at El Copal to feed on fruiting Melastomes in front of the lodge. I suspect that diligent birding could turn them up at other times of the year as well but despite scanning the forest canopy several times a day, we didn’t see any cotingas.  Since this species appears to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica (and should be considered locally endangered in my opinion) , that was no big surprise.

We were, however, intrigued by the shortage of hummingbird species. Quality was there in the form of ever present Snowcaps and Violet-headed Hummingbirds, but where were the other 10 species that buzzed the Porterweed in May, 2010? At that time, Green Thorntail was the most common hummingbird. On this trip, it didn’t even make the list.  The dearth of hummingbirds was testament to the fact that many hummingbird species in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) make lots of movements or short migrations in search of their favorite  flowers.

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Male Snowcap (now that’s some serious quality).

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Male Violet-headed Hummingbird (it gets a quality sticker too).

While the cotingas didn’t show up to feast on Melastome fruits, the tanagers sure did. Among the 18 species that highlighted the trees in front of the lodge with their glittering plumage were such highlights as Blue and Gold, Emerald, Black and Yellow, and Speckled Tanagers. Scarlet-thighed Dacnis were pretty common and I have never been any place in Costa Rica where it was so easy to see White-vented Euphonia. We must have had six of this uncommon species hanging out right at the lodge.

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A bad picture of two White-vented Euphonias. Find them if you can!

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A back view of a male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Accompanying the tanagers were Scarlet-rumped Caciques, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Spotted Woodcreeper, several Tropical Parulas and Bananaquits, and Band-backed Wrens. The forest edge near the lodge was also good for Golden-olive Woodpecker, both oropendolas, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari, and held a pair of Spectacled Owls at night. Beto, one of the gracious owners of the lodge, also told us about the Mottled Owls that make regular appearances at the lodge.

The birds mentioned above made for some fantastic, busy birding from the balcony. It was also a great place to watch the huge flocks of White-collared Swifts the flew over in the evening and to watch for raptors. Regarding hawks and other sharply clawed birds, we were surprised to see so few raptors when so many showed up on our previous trip to this site. The only raptors we had other than vultures were one Short-tailed Hawk, a few Swallow-tailed Kites, a couple of heard only Barred Forest-Falcons, Bat Falcon, and one distant, immature Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

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The balcony at El Copal.

Inside the forest, the cloudy, partly rainy weather boosted the bird activity to new heights. Saturday had a good number of mixed flocks, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, and calling Tawny-chested Flycatcher, but Sunday was downright amazing. We took the upper trail and the bird activity was just about non-stop from 6 to 8am. Big mixed flocks accompanied us along the trail that were dominated by Carmiol’s Tanagers and held rarities such as Rufous-browed Tyrannulets, Black and White Becard, and even one Sharpbill (seen by just one person in the group). We also got onto a few Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers, Slaty-capped and Olive-striped Flycatchers, Russet Antshrike, White-winged Tanager, and Plain Xenops in addition to most of the tanager species seen at the lodge. I suppose our other best forest birds were singing Black-headed Antthrush and one flushed Chiriqui Quail-Dove.

Not counting the Torrent Tyrannulet, Tawny-crested Tanagers, and Sunbittern and dozen or so open country species seen on the way to and from the lodge, we got 125 species in total. This was a pretty good total considering that most were forest birds. Making arrangements to stay at El Copal was a bit confusing at times, and the directions to the place posted at the ACTUAR site should be more specific but the rest of the trip went  as smooth as chocolate silk pie. Our hosts from the community were friendly, gracious, and very accommodating (5 am coffee). The lodge is still quite rustic with basic beds and cold showers (yikes!) but they may have solar water heaters for our next visit. The community is looking for and open to accepting funds to put in a solar water heater (all electricity there is solar in nature) and could also use other things like extra binoculars, field guides, and a green laser pointer (works wonders for pointing out birds in the forest). If interested in making a donation to El Copal, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to put you in touch with the owners.

Also, here are more specific directions to the place:

When you get to Paraiso, stay on the main road past the park and go straight rather than following signs to Turrialba. You will descend through coffee plantations down to Cachi dam. From there, follow signs to Tuccurrique and Pejibaye. In Pejibaye, go around the soccer field (football pitch) and head to the right. Stay on that road and watch for a sign to El Copal that tells you to make a sharp left over a bridge that crosses a small river. Follow that road and stay to the left where the road forks. Keep following it (fair birding along the way) and watch for a sign that shows the entrance to El Copal on the left.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to go birding because the place isn’t always open. Also, make reservations through Actuar to stay overnight because day trips seem to only be possible by taking a super expensive birding tour. Even if you don’t go to El Copal, though, you could still see a lot of good birds in forest patches along the road (rocky but doable even without four-wheel drive until just past El Copal).

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New Hummingbird Garden and feeders near Poas, Costa Rica

On of the nicest things about hummingbirds is that most species will happily visit feeders and guard them with belligerant viligance. This is such a boon because they can be so difficult to watch in forested habitats. Those glittering feathered sprites seem to be particularly speciose in cloud forests but you wouldn’t know it just by walking through the forest.  This is because a typical stroll through mossy, foggy cloud forest results in a fair number of flyby hummingbirds but rather few good sightings where you positively identify them. The experience usually plays out like this:


“A hummingbird just flew by!”

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know, it’s gone.”

“Did you get a look at it”?


The frustrating snippet above then happens five more times before you get a good look at a perched bird and even then, it’s usually a small, dark silhouette that either goes unidentified or leaves you feeling cheated because the supposedly jewel-like plumage of the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem looked about as colorful as a shadow in a dark closet.

Now don’t get me wrong, watching hummingbirds in tropical forest doesn’t have to always be this way. If you are careful about it, intently watch the flowers they prefer, and have a quick eye, you can certainly get satisfying looks at hummingbirds. However, it’s always easier when you have a mix of flowering bushes and hanging feeders placed near forest and trees that hummingbirds can use for protection (from predators and hazards such as large raindrops). Costa Rica has its fair share of hummingbird magnets that match this description and some of the best are found near Poas Volcano.

The most well known is the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The massive plantings of Porterweed at this tourist attraction attract a huge number of hummingbirds, including uncommon species such as Black-bellied. BUT, you have to pay $30 (or more) just to hang out and watch them. If you don’t want to dish out such a high entrance fee, hang out long enough by the feeders at the resurrected hummingbird gallery soda at Cinchona and you will see most of the same species. Then, head back upslope towards Varablanca, take a right  towards Poas and keep going until you see a restaurant on the left called, “Cocina Costarricense”.

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Check out the feeders in front of the window.

Stop in and have a bite to eat or a drink and watch the hummingbird action at their feeders. The owner told me that they get more birds during the wet season but I still had a good number of species while guiding clients in the area last week. Species seen were Volcano Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Violetear, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, and Magnificent Hummingbird.

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Green-crowned Brilliants like to pose. I thought this one looked kind of like a living sculpture.

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Female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems look about as nice as the males.

birding Costa Rica

I can think of other hummingbird species more magnificent than this one but that’s it’s name so what are you gonna do.

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Green Violetears may be common but that doesn’t take away from their looks.

In addition to hummingbirds, that general area is also good for other highland species such as Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, and Yellow-winged Vireo among others.

If you don’t like to include a large window, feeders, and weathered steel rods in your hummingbird pictures, head back down the road towards Varablanca and take a right towards Alajuela. Follow that road for a kilometer or two until you see a restaurant called, “Freddy Fresas” on the left. You can park right in front, and if you like stuff made with strawberries or darn good deserts (especially for Costa Rica), make sure to visit this place. The non-strawberry food is pretty good too as is the service. There is, however, an even better reason for patronizing Freddie and his friends- they maintain a beautiful garden replete with walkways, fountains, flowers, a trail through riparian cloud forest, and hummingbird feeders. Oh yeah, and it’s free too! The entrance is a white gate located just across the street from Freddy Fresas and as long as it’s open, you can just walk right on in and hang out with the birds.

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Freddy Fresas

birding Costa Rica

Their garden across the street has feeders

and big leaves!

I still need to bird the trail down to the stream as I have been told that quetzals are sometimes seen there. The hummingbird feeders are set up near the forest edge and appeared to host the same species as the restaurant up the hill except that Volcano Hummingbirds were replaced by Scintillants. I could also take pictures with more natural settings:

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A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

I will be making more visits to this hidden treasure because it’s not too far from the house, it’s underbirded, and it might hold some surprises. However, the main reason I will be visiting this site from time to time is because my daughter is crazy about strawberries so  keep an eye out for updates!

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Hummingbirds middle elevations

Birding El Toucanet Lodge, Costa Rica

Two weekends ago, I finally got the chance to experience El Toucanet Lodge near Copey de Dota, Costa Rica. This highland birding site has popped up on the Costa Rican birding grapevine on a number of occasions so I was enthused about birding there while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. I have guided a number of birders who have enthralled me with tales of El Toucanet’s exciting hummingbird action, easy views of quetzals, great food, and quality hospitality. After staying there, I echo their sentiments and definitely recommend the place when birding the Talamancas.

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The majority of birders get their fill of high elevation birding in Costa Rica at Savegre Mountain Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota. Since the oak forests there are more accessible than at El Toucanet, you can’t go wrong with birding at Savegre Mountain Lodge, but it’s also more expensive. For a more moderately priced option, El Toucanet is $30 cheaper per night on average and is situated at a lower elevation with drier forest that turns up an interesting suite of species. In addition to good birding around the hotel, birders who come with a rental vehicle will find it to be a good site to use as a base for birding higher elevations.

At the lodge itself, two hummingbird feeders were enough to entertain us with views of the following species:

Violet Sabrewing

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Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

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Green Violetear

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Magenta-throated Woodstar

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Scintillant Hummingbird

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Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

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and the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

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There were also camera shy Green-crowned Brilliants, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and in flowering Ingas on the property, a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds. White-throated Mountain-Gems, and Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds seen at higher elevations gave us a respectable total of thirteen hummingbirds species seen during our stay.

On the non-hummingbird side of page, some of the highlights at the lodge and in nearby, similar habitats were Dark Pewee (common), Barred Becard (fairly common), Spotted Wood-Quail (heard only although they sometimes show up at the lodge), Collared Trogon, Black and white Becard (very uncommon species in Costa Rica), and Rough-legged Tyrannulet. Much to my chagrin, this last bird was also a heard only as it would have been a lifer! I tried calling it in but the bird just wouldn’t come close enough to see it- all the more reason to head back up there!

Flame-colored Tanagers were fairly common and came to the lodge feeders once in a while

birding Costa Rica

but the lodge namesake seemed to be pretty uncommon. We still saw a few Emerald Toucanets but not as many as I had expected; maybe they are more common at other times of the year or are down in numbers like the Resplendent Quetzal. As with other areas in Costa Rica, the wacky fruiting season seems to have had an impact upon quetzal numbers so it took us a few days to actually see one. This is in contrast to the norm at El Tocuanet whereby guests often view more than one of these fancy birds on the daily quetzal tour (free for guests).

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A Resplendent Quetzal near El Toucanet being resplendent.

One of our best birdies during our visit was Silver-throated Jay. This tough endemic needs primary highland oak forest and, at El Tocuanet, is only regularly found at higher elevations where the road to Providencia flattens out. It was nice to get this rarity for the year even if it was a pain to get clear views of it in the densely foliaged crowns of massive, moss-draped oaks. That same area also hosted three or four calling, unseen Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, the aforementioned high elevation hummingbirds, and a mixed flock highlighted by Buffy Tuftedcheeks. We also had our weirdest bird of the trip in that area- a Magnificent Frigatebird! If it wanted to masquerade as an American Swallow-tailed Kite, those raptors weren’t buying it and demonstrated their discontent by dive-bombing the modern day Pterodactyl.

We also had calling quetzals around there, and at night, heard Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. During our after dark excursion, we tried for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet but didn’t get any response. Maybe it occurs at higher elevations? Maybe it just doesn’t like birders? No matter because I am going to get that feathered gnome before 2011 comes to an end!

Our final morning was when we got the quetzal (thanks to the owners son Kenny who whistled it in) in addition to being our best morning of birding. Streak-breasted Treehunter hung out at a nesting hole (burrow) in a quarry. Barred Becard and bathing Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers entertained in the same area. Tufted Flycatchers, migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Dark Pewee were sallying off perches like jumping jack flash, and Yellow-bellied Siskins did what all birds should do-

birding Costa Rica

sing from exposed, eye level perches for long periods of time at close distances. Challenges are OK but relaxed, easy birding is always better!

One drawback to birding near El Toucanet is that hunting still occurs in the area. We didn’t see any guys with guns or floppy eared, baying dogs, but we were told that locals do hunt in the Los Santos Forest Reserve (illegally). I suspected as much because of the flighty behavior of birds in the area (except at El Toucanet where they know they are safe). Even so, aside from making it a bit more challenging to watch birds close up, I doubt that it affects the birding all that much. Black Guans are probably more difficult to see but you may still have a good chance for them when birding the long road through Providencia and the highway. Much of this underbirded road cuts through beautiful forest. If you have the time and vehicle, please bird it and let us know what you see! I plan on surveying the road sometime this year and will blog about it.

In the meantime, check out El Toucanet! I bet the area around the lodge holds more surprises, the fireplace is certifiably cozy, the food very good, and the owners as nice as can be.

Here was a very cool surprise that I ran into just next to the lodge- my lifer Godson’s Montane Pit-Viper!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

Visit The New Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe when Birding Costa Rica

Cinchona is known in Costa Rica as the town that was destroyed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake on January 9th, 2009. Most structures in that quaint town and the surrounding area collapsed, landslides wiped out large sections of route 126, and more than 30 people lost their lives. Birders were especially familiar with the area around Cinchona because of several birding sites situated along route 126. Virgen del Socorro was one of the most famous sites as it was an excellent area for middle elevation birds of the Caribbean Slope and the most reliable place in Costa Rica for seeing Lanceolated Monklet.

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Virgen del Socorro before the earthquake.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens were another site that was frequented by birders and many tourists, but the crown jewel for birding were two cafes with serious hummingbird action and fruit feeders that attracted both species of barbets, tanagers, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, and others. The abundance of birds, friendly owners, and lack of an entrance fee made those cafes a welcome, requisite stop when taking this scenic route to the Sarapiqui area.

All of these places were unfortunately very close to the epicenter of the quake and were severely damaged or seemed to have just disappeared. The road also vanished in places (it ran along the fault line that caused the quake) and it looked as if those classic birding sites were gone for good. More than two years later, I am happy to report that this is not the case. The Waterfall Gardens were back up and running a matter of months after the earthquake, and major improvements have been made to route 126. On a trip to the area last weekend, we were surprised to see how much work had been done on the road. Although it still lacks pavement, it has been widened and graded for at least half of its length and it looked like road crews were fixing up the other half as well. Although the upper section wasn’t officially open, many cars (including two wheel drive vehicles) and public buses are using it.

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Wide, graded road.

Habitat isn’t as good as it used to be along the lower parts of the road but there are some promising areas on the upper section that produced birds such as Dark Pewee, Tufted Flycatcher, a flyby Chiriqui Quail-Dove (!), Barred Becard, Red-faced Spinetail, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and other expected middle elevation species during visits in February. You can also visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens to watch an abundance of hummingbirds and see their “zoo” of rescued animals but to be honest, the $35 per person entrance is too steep of a price to pay for birding in my opinion, and especially so because you can see the same species at other sites in the area.

One of these is the new Hummingbird Cafe. It appears to be located on or near the same spot as the former and might be run by the same people. It is much smaller and a shadow of its former birding glory but it’s still worth a stop. On a visit last weekend, the following hummingbird species came to their three feeders: Violet Sabrewing, Green Violetear, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. Most of these were single birds and there wasn’t a huge amount of action but I still got some ok shots and other species probably show up from time to time.

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Green Thorntail

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Green Violetear

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Green-crowned Brilliant (female)

We also had a White-crowned Parrot that perched on a snag and showed off its colors.

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Virgen del Socorro was visible down below and a road could be discerned that descended into the gorge but as far as we could tell, it was only accessible from the other side of the river. Despite being very familiar with the entrance road to Virgen del Socorro, I failed to find it. I still hope it’s there but strongly suspect that it was more or less destroyed. Perhaps the forested gorge at Virgen del Socorro can still be visited from the village of the same name on the other side of the river? I fear that much habitat was destroyed by earthquake spawned landslides and floods but it would be nice to see if the monklet is still around as well as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them there in the past and they were also seen on rare occasions).