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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Check out the Good Birds on Poas when Birding Costa Rica

Poas Volcano is somewhat overlooked as a birding destination. Birders in search of highland specialties head off to the more extensive forests on Cerro de la Muerte and have a grand old time with the R. Quetzal, Collared Redstarts, Zeledonias, and other birds that got an evolutionary foothold in the rising Talamancas. Nevertheless, you can still see a bunch of darn good birds at places like the volcanoes of Barva, Poas, and Irazu. In fact, I see great birds there all the time. The habitat looks nicer in the Talamancas and you can access more of the temperate zone forests but Poas and Irazu are more easily done as day trips from San Jose. Poas also makes for a nice place to spend the night when staying in the valley and Irazu looks like the perfect spot to look for Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl. Poas is only a forty-five minute ride from the airport, there are more than a few hotels to choose from, and if you like strawberries, locals hawk bags of your favorite red berry on the side of the road.

So, don’t discount Poas as a birding destination but especially because it can turn up some great birds. For the time being, you also might want to fit a trip to Poas into the itinerary because the bamboo has seeded and some good birds have arrived! I almost discounted bamboo birds for the area because I kept checking the place and coming up with nothing save Mountain Elaenias and bush-tanagers. Well, to be completely honest, there were other birds too but none of the species that have a natural obsession with seeding bamboo. Maybe their absence stemmed from a lack of seeds? Maybe the crop just wasn’t ripe enough to please their avian palates? Whatever the reason for their no-show in the past,  some bamboo birds are certainly in the house on Poas in the present.

Thanks to Steve and Liz for mentioning that they has seen LOTS of Peg-billed Finches on the road to Las Lagunillas, I decided to scout the area on Sunday with a friend of mine. Although we spent most of the morning on the San Rafael de Varablanca road and saw cool stuff like Bicolored Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and Golden-bellied Flycatcher (until reaching a washed out part of the road), a brief trip to the Lagunillas Road in the afternoon was the prize as it yielded several Peg-billed Finches and flyover Barred Parakeets!

Golden-bellied Flycatcher- a cool, middle elevation near endemic.

Unfortunately, my camera has something against Peg-billed Finches. This was the best image of a bunch.

While guiding in the area on Monday, we didn’t even bother with the Lagunillas Road as we had several Peg-billed Finches along the main road to Poas as well as in front of the Restaurant Volcan. Many of the wild avocado trees were also in fruit and as luck and patience would have it, a male Resplendent Quetzal briefly glided past us as we waited for mixed flock activity. Although the flock never showed up, we were still rewarded with several Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, many Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, and one Green-fronted Lancebill!  Saving the best bird for last, we heard at least one Slaty Finch. This serious rarity sang a few times from the dead bamboo at the stream across the street from the Restaurant Volcan and although we didn’t manage to see it, the high-pitched buzzy trill that rises and briefly falls couldn’t have been anything else.

The Restaurant Volcan seems to be reliable for Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher.

You will also be entertained by Yellowish Flycatchers.

Even if we hadn’t seen any bamboo birds, the hummingbird show at places like the Restaurant Volcan and Poas Lodge would have been reason enough to visit:

Magnificent Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Violet Sabrewing

I don’t know how long those bamboo birds will be present on Poas but I will be visiting again soon! It’s probably my best chance at getting that Costa Rican Holy Grail of Columbids, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. I was very fortunate to see it once before but since that happened in 1994, I would love to have another look.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding potential around the Poas Volcano area of Costa Rica

Poas Volcano (or “Volcan Poas” as it is locally known) is one of those dark green mountains easily visible from everywhere in the Central valley except for Cartago where the larger Irazu Volcano blocks it from view. Because of its proximity to San Jose, ease of access, and the fact that you can walk right up to the sulphury edge of the crater and peer down at the highly acidic lake, Poas is commonly visited by tourists. It’s not such a popular destination among birders visiting Costa Rica, however, because most get their high elevation birding fix in places like Savegre or other sites on Cerro de la Muerte.

With a timeframe of just two or three weeks to try and see as many of 800 plus bird species as possible in a number of distinct habitats, I can’t blame anyone for neglecting to bird the Poas area. In fact, if there is anyone to blame for not birding Poas as much as it merits, “c’est moi” because not only do I live here, but the volcano is also literally uphill from my house. Since it takes 40 minutes to drive up there, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but Poas is honestly pretty close to the homestead so I should be birding it more often. In defense of having not birded Poas so much in the past is the fact that it’s not easy to adequately bird the volcano with public transportation. I think there is a daily bus that leaves from San Jose but it doesn’t get up to the entrance until at least mid-morning and heads back down the mountain only three hours later. I can’t even use that excuse anymore, however, because I recently acquired a vehicle that can take me up the volcano lickety split.

I admit that I also had this idea that there wasn’t much habitat up on Poas so it was almost by chance that I headed up there last week. My main goal was to test a new camera and digital recording device in the Varablanca area but because there was more traffic noise than expected along the unofficially opened Cinchona road coupled with the realization that good habitat was just a bit too far away for good bird photos, I decided to check out sites only a 15 minute drive higher up on Poas.

Wind and misty conditions trounced all attempts at bird photography and recording of bird sounds in the temperate zone but the silver lining of the trip was the realization that there was a lot more quality habitat than I had expected. There isn’t a whole lot of bird friendly vegetation between Varablanca and the village of Poasito (expect for maybe Eastern Meadowlarks and Cattle Egrets) but there are a few spots with remnant, riparian cloud forest that should be checked and much better habitat once you reach Poas Lodge. The road up to the volcano in particular is where the pasture paradise for cows thankfully changes into temperate cloud forest to becomes the common vegetation scheme and is also where I will be checking for a number of bird species that could conceivably occur in the area.

Remnant, riparian forest.

birding costa rica

Quality habitat near Poas Lodge on a bad day for bird photography.

birding costa rica

At least I could still get pictures of flowers.

birding costa rica

birding costa rica

Bamboo is always a good thing because strange birds such as the Zeledonia and Silvery-fronted Tapaculo really dig it. Rarities such as Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and Slaty Finch also love bamboo but usually don’t show unless it is seeding.

birding Costa Rica

I use the word “conceivably” when talking about the Poas avifauna because hardly anyone birds its high elevations on a regular basis so I don’t know for sure what might be up there. I’ve got a pretty good idea but because it’s consistently hard to guess what might show up in complex, tropical ecosystems coupled with the fact that the area is situated on the continental divide, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find a few species here and there that defy their distributions as shown in print. The other big reason why species lists for the area aren’t well known is simply because Poas is underbirded.

Sure, plenty of birders have paid the $30 entrance fee to experience the hummingbird madness of the Waterfall Gardens a bit lower down and some have birded the trails at Poas Volcano Lodge (which I also plan on checking out some day) but the high elevation forests on the way up to the entrance to the park and at the crater see very few birders and probably aren’t surveyed very often (if ever). I hope to change that by heading up the mountain that I see from town on a daily basis to do some early morning surveys as well as get up there when the sun goes down to search for a few choice nocturnal bird species.