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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip

Recent Birding at Tapanti National Park

It’s always exciting to visit Tapanti National Park because of the avian possibilities that haunt the mossy forests of this middle elevation site. Rarities that have been seen there include Red-fronted Parrotlet, Lanceolated Monklet, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Streaked Xenops, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, and Sharpbill. Does this mean that you will any of these “quality” bird species? Absolutely not! BUT if you spend a few days intensely birding the park, I would say that you have a fair chance of seeing at least half of the bird species listed above. I wish I had the time to intensely survey Tapanti over the course of a week and hang out with rare birds, but since I simply don’t have the time, I make do with day visits.

This means that my chances of seeing rarities are diminished, but a day visit to this biodiverse park always turns up good birds anyways. Black Guan makes a regular appearance,  Black-faced Solitaires and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes provide background music, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants complain from hidden perches in the forest, Prong-billed and Red-headed Barbets hang out in fruiting trees, Green Thorntail and Black-bellied Hummingbirds are fairly common, Collared Trogon is always cool to see, Dark Pewee and Golden-bellied Flycatcher are rarely missed, and even hawk eagles will show up.

Whether guiding there, or birding with a friend, I love going to Tapanti. Well, except when the rain comes pouring down for hours on end, but if you luck out with cloudy or misty weather, the birding can be pretty darn good. This past Sunday, we had good, cloudy birding weather in the morning that was followed up by a saturating, after-lunch rain. As you may surmise, we didn’t see much in the afternoon, but the morning was OK. It would have been much better if we had run into a good mixed flock, but we just didn’t get lucky enough to cross paths with any. Nevertheless, here is a rundown of our birding day (morning):

After a drive through pouring rain and openly questioning the predictive ability of weather forecasts in Costa Rica, the skies cleared up sometime after Orosi, so we stopped in a birdy looking spot that had thick second growth on one side of the road and shade coffee on the other. A forested hillside on the opposite bank of the river also begged to be scanned for perched raptors and cotingas (one can always wish). Nothing showed up with scans of the hillside but birds on the side of the road were going nuts. They were mostly common, edge species but still fun to watch and included White-naped Brush-Finch, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Brown Jay, Montezuma Oropendola, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Slaty Spinetail, Plain Wren, Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits, Variable Seedeater, Grayish, Buff-throated, and Black-headed Saltators, and Blue-gray, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers.

There was also a  calling Barred Antshrike,

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The Barred Antshrike may be widespread, but it’s always cool to see a bird that looks like kind of like a zebra.

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White-tipped Dove,

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and the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow.

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Further on, the colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas just across the bridge was still active.

Sulphur-bellied and Piratic Flycatchers, and Yellow-bellied Elaenias were hanging out in this area, as was one of our best (if dullest) birds for the day; a White-throated Flycatcher. Costa Rica’s only breeding Empid. is most easily seen in the remnant sedge marsh in front of the Lankester Gardens but it can also be found in the Orosi valley and a few other sites.

At the park entrance, we were welcomed by the squeeky calls of Golden-bellied Flycatchers, Tropical Parula, Brown-capped Vireo, Common Bush-Tanagers, and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and Spotted Wood-Quail were also heard in the distance.

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Golden-bellied Flycatcher.

Up the road through the park, Black-bellied Hummingbird and Green Thorntail made appearances and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush refused to show itself.

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Male Green Thorntail vainly attempting to blend in with a twiggy tree.

Hoping to see Ochre-breasted Antpitta and other uncommon species, we walked about a kilometer up the “Arboles Caidos” trail. The name of this trail means “fallen trees” but a more accurate title would be something like “climb the mountain” or just “damn steep trail”. It could also be an allegory to just falling back down the hill instead of attempting to mountain goat it back down to the road. Improvements have made walking this trail better than in the past (you no longer need to grasp muddy tree roots to pull yourself along), but it’s still a challenge.

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The Arboles Caidos trail- gateway to rare middle elevation species and, if you aren’t careful, an acute case of shin splints.

We defy gravity on the Arboles Caidos trail not because we want to climb Chirripo Mountain or train for a triathalon, but because birders have encountered things like Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, and Black-banded Woodcreeper (only place I have seen it in Costa Rica). We didn’t see any of these on Sunday, but we did hear White-throated Spadebill and Chiriqui Quail-Dove as consolation prizes. One day, I am going to spend most of a day on this trail to see what shows up and get recordings of that miniscule antpitta illustrated on the back cover of Garrigues and Dean (it’s Robert’s favorite bird). You don’t have to walk the entire time and it’s a beautiful place to hang out in any case.

We were severely impressed by this red flower on the Arboles Caidos.

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We also saw that feisty little creature known as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant.

The rest of the day was dedicated to finding mixed flocks along the main road through the park. Our strategy involved slowing driving along while listening for Slaty-capped Flycatcher and Spotted Woodcreeper with the windows down and sun-roof open. We found a few more species for the day such as Tufted Flycatcher, Spotted Barbtail, and White-throated Thrush, but no luck with mixed flocks. The strategy was a good one until it started to rain and the open sun roof became an ambassador for falling water. Not much else happened after that although I did run into birding guide Steven Easley (we had some nice conversation about Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows), and managed to get pics of Collared Trogon.

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I soooo like birds that let me take their picture.

The drive back to the Central Valley was like a ride through a monsoon on steroids. Well, I guess not that crazy but I will say that it was raining so hard that it was more like “jaguars and wolves” than “cats and dogs”. Yep, the rainy season is here but birding Costa Rica is as great as ever (as long as you go birding in the morning).

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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

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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-

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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 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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Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.