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Birding Costa Rica Introduction south pacific slope

The new road to Caldera in Costa Rica is finally open

It was thirty years in the making, but the new road to the coast is finally open in Costa Rica! If the world ends in 2012 as the Mayans predicted, then at least we have two years to zoom back and forth between the crowded Central Valley and the open space of the hot central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This road has been talked about for so long in Costa Rica that it became legendary long before any of its asphalt was mixed.

People have been saying things like:

“It’s going to take thirty minutes to get to the coast from San Jose”!

“THE ROAD is going to have four lanes the entire way”!

“It will be like taking a thruway in the states”!

“It will be a straight route to the coast”!

“I can see a Royal Flycatcher half an hour after leaving San Jose”!

Ok, that last one was what I had been thinking but in any case, all of us in Costa Rica have been very excited about the opening of the road. In fact, we were so excited that Janet Peterson (a fellow birding friend) and I decided to check out the road last Sunday.

We weren’t the only ones.

Even though we left pretty early, a variety of cars joined us to check out the new road. There were old, slow cars born in the 70s that like mechanical family patrons, carried entire families to the promising coast. There were new SUVs that zoomed along like tanks (and like tanks threatened to drive over the older, slower, smaller vehicles). There were small buses filled with local tourists as well as what appeared to be school buses (because of their size and the fact that they were filled with students). Taking into account the number of break-downs, it was apparent that a lot of these cars hadn’t been out of the garage or front yard for some time. It was one last hurrah for them before heading to the junkyard I suppose.

Translated from the mechanical Spanish, “Please, just one last trip along the new road. I just want my tires to experience one last smooth, pot-hole-less ride before I blow a final gasket (cough, cough)”.

And translated from regular people Spanish, “Ok, let’s take the car for a spin. The road is open”!

“But dear, that car doesn’t even work”!

“Sure it will! I’ll just pour in some water here, a bit of oil there, fill the tires, toss some Salsa Lizano into the tank for good measure and off we go! And if it does break, let it happen on the NEW ROAD”!

And so it did happen. On January thirty-first, many a car let out it’s last gasp of exhaust along the road to Caldera in the form of a black cloud that said farewell and enjoy the tolls…

Yes, tolls, not road. Well, the road can be enjoyable but the tolls sure aren’t. That sort of torturous, constant stopping and going in the tropical heat is probably what did in the older vehicles. From San Jose to Orotina, for a distance of fifty kilometers at the most (that’s thirty miles for us anti-metric Americans) there are at least four different tolls that I recall that will leave you about 2,000 colones lighter. Although it’s a sneaky rip-off that most tourists won’t mind, locals who live near the new road aren’t very pleased (especially because there are few to no options in some areas).

To get to the coast fast for my Royal Flycatcher fix at Carara, I actually don’t mind shelling out those colones but I DO mind having to wait in line at the toll booths. Even though the traffic didn’t seem too bad on the way down to Carara, we were still twiddling our thumbs and wondering why they built so few lanes for the tolls. That wasn’t so bad but on our way back later that same day, the new road was a congested mess because of the toll booths and sections of the road that only had two lanes. The lines were too long for mere thumb twiddling. No, we felt as if we were aging while sitting there. If there would have been birds to look at, we would have been OK but that just wasn’t the case.

So, to sum things up about the new road and in answer to all of those expectations, despite thirty years of planning, it seems that the planners forgot to design the road for the amount of traffic it will get. If you go early in the morning, it will be a comfortable, quick trip that does more or less goes straight to the coast. BUT, it doesn’t have four lanes (it has two or three) so if you go later in the day, expect to have to wait at every toll booth and at some of the two-laned sections.

For birders who need to travel between the coast and San Jose, I suggest using the new road in the morning and the old, curvy, scenic road that goes through San Mateo in the afternoon. I took the old road the other day and it was a wonderful drive with hardly any traffic. Plus, you can stop along the old road at one of two cafes that have stunning overlooks and can be good for dry forest birds.

As for the Royal Flycatcher, we got more than a fix. Along the river trail in Carara, we were seeing them the entire time and one was even attempting to build a nest above the trail.

Other interesting sightings were Three-wattled Bellbird heard, Gray-headed Tanager, and the usual great variety of wrens, hummingbirds, and other flycatchers typically seen along this always birdy trail.

Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction middle elevations south pacific slope

Birding at Talari Mountain Lodge, Costa Rica

A couple days after coming back to where summer reigns eternal, I did some guiding at the Talari Mountain Lodge in the Valle de el General area of Costa Rica. Not too far from where Alexander Skutch lived and carried out so many life history studies of Costa Rican birds, Talari is located about 10 minutes from San Isidro (Perez Zeledon) on the banks of the Rio General. Like much of the lower elevations of the valley, there is very little intact forest and the avifauna can’t compare to its former glory. HOWEVER, there are still a fair number of interesting, local species present at Talari which with the forest growing back, acts like an oasis for birds.

Talari Mountain Lodge, Costa Rica

Despite its name, Talari is not really located high up in the mountains although it is situated just off the road up to the village from which hikers depart to ascend Costa Rica’s highest mountain. The birding was alright at Talari for a variety of common species, a few rarities, and wonderful, close looks at a number of colorful species that visited their fruit feeders. Overall, I think it would be an especially good place for beginning tropical birders, or to use as a base for visiting various sites in the General Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator- a common Costa Rican bird that is a bit more reclusive than say a

Clay-colored Robin.

I was impressed with how quiet and peaceful Talari was. Nights were cool, the sound of the river was soothing, and music in the restaurant was played at a low volume. The restaurant was pretty basic, expensive (although breakfast is included in the price), and guests have to give advance notice about taking meals there, but the action at the feeders just outside the restaurant is priceless.

There aren’t too many places where you can watch Speckled Tanagers at feeders.

Cherrie’s Tanagers are also very common,

The feeders were visited by stunning Green Honeycreepers. The male is the one with the black on the head.

Unfortunately, I missed a visit by Fiery-billed Aracaris and wasn’t quick enough to capture a Streaked Saltator that was also visiting the feeders. Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and Tennessee Warblers were some of the other species that also enjoyed the bananas.

Away from the feeders, birding was very nice in the morning at two large Inga species that were laden with small fruits. As soon as it became light, the crowns of these important trees quivered with Clay-colored Robins, Great Kiskadees, TKs, Social, Gray-capped, and Boat-billed Flycatchers, Palm, Blue-gray, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, and a Rose-throated Becard, while Gray-headed Chachalacas clambered around the thick branches of the sub-canopy.

We had a great view of these trees from the cabins and spent much of two mornings scanning and scoping their crowns and the tops of adjacent trees. This kept us pretty busy and happy to find our main target species on both mornings- Turquoise Cotinga. No dove-looking scaly feathered female either but two vivid (as if Cotinga species be anything but vivid) males that shone like Navajo jewelry in the morning light. This regional endemic is more adaptable and thus more easily seen than the endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga but is never guaranteed because they move around in search of fruiting trees and are nearly silent.

Here is one of the males- a great way to start my 2010 list.

and here is another hanging out with a Masked Tityra.

Other interesting or local Costa Rican birds we had were:

Pearl Kite- two birds doing aerial displays and calling. They looked more like kingbirds than raptors!

Tropical Screech Owl- a common owl but owls are always noteworthy.

Charming Hummingbird- a few a these regional endemics around.

Long-billed Starthroat- a beautiful hummingbird that perched above the restaurant.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird- a few of this General Valley specialty were around.

Olivaceous Piculet- a few around the lodge doing the typical inconspicuous piculet thing.

Pale-breasted Spinetail- if you think you hear a Willow Flycatcher, it’s one of these guys!

Orange-collared Manakin- several tough to see individuals frequented the forest patches.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike- a widespread neotropical species that often gets overlooked in Costa Rica.

Rufous-breasted Wren- I wish I had a photo of this handsome species.

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- the gray-headed taxon was common in shady undergrowth.

Scrub Greenlet- another easily overlooked bird.

I think two days was enough to bird Talari itself but as I mentioned above, it would be a nice place to use as a base for birding a number of other sites, including Skutch’s Farm, “Los Cusingos”. The lodge costs $75 per night for a double (taxes and breakfast included) and is owned by a friendly, accommodating Tico couple who are making efforts to operate as green as possible.

Here is a view of the river and high mountains from the lodge property,

and this is their “green” jacuzzi that should be in operation by the time you visit.