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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip weather

May, 2010 is a rainy time for birding in Costa Rica

While birders up north are watching  and listening to the myriads of warblers, vireos, thrushes, grosbeaks, and flycatchers that make their way to the hardwood and coniferous forests of their breeding grounds, it’s getting pretty rainy down here for birding in Costa Rica. Since the rains are often restricted to the afternoon, though, all of that falling water doesn’t hinder birding very much.  The effects of the rain on the roads, however, makes it much more difficult to get around.

The road to Guapiles and Limon (route 32) has always been subject to landslides during heavy rains and is closed on and off every year, but that usually happens during the constant rainfall of October and November. I swear, when I was birding Costa Rica in November of 1999, it rained so much on the Caribbean slope that I thought I was going to go crazy. It rained non-stop for literally weeks on end and I only recall three days when it stopped raining during the whole month! It felt like fish were going to just start swimming right through the humid air at any time.

a rainy day for birding Costa Rica on the road through Braulio Carrillo

May usually isn’t too bad, though, and the amount of rain that has fallen has seemed to be pretty much par for the course. However, so much water has been dumped on the mountains of Braulio Carrillo that the highway has suffered several big landslides. It ended up being closed for at least a week nearly a month ago and still hasn’t been fixed!

Well, the highway is open, but the road experts say that too much of the slopes along this important road are still unstable and therefore they close it for the night. This unfortunately makes it difficult and risky to get to Quebrada Gonzalez from San Jose until the road is deemed to be stabilized. On the other hand, if you have a car and are coming from Guapiles (which is closer to Quebrada Gonzalez), you can visit Quebrada Gonzalez no matter what landslides might occur because they happen further up the road near the tunnel. In fact, if a landslide does close the road and you are in the Caribbean lowlands, by all means, you should rush on over to the highway to take advantage of birding right from the road because there won’t be any traffic!

Because there are few places to park and there is a potential for thieves along the highway away from the ranger station, the fantastic forests of Braulio Carrillo are off limits when the road is open. Close the road, though, and you will probably have some of the best Csta Rica birding in your life. If the sun comes out, Black and white Hawk-Eagle and Solitary Eagle are real possibilities, the mixed flocks will be amazing and might hold Sharpbill, you could see Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a flock of aracaris and toucans, and might even get lucky with a flyover of Red-fronted Parrotlets. All of these are also possible at Quebrada Gonzalez but you would be able to cover more territory and have a better chance at seeing soaring raptors from the road. I haven’t been lucky enough to have this chance yet but I hope I do some day!

While the highway is closed, traffic in San Jose gets even worse because most traffic headed to the Caribbean (including big trucks) pass through San Jose on their way to the alternate route to Limon that passes through Turrialba.

As for other problems with natural forces that could hinder your birding trip to Costa Rica this May, 2010, I just saw on the news today that the new highway to Caldera had some problems with huge rocks falling onto the roadway. Some representative for the company that built the road said that this was expected but wasn’t a problem.

Rocks the size of a house potentially squashing a car along with the people inside not a problem? Well, I guess it isn’t a problem if it doesn’t happen to you but since they said this was expected, I will be taking the old road to the Pacific lowlands during prolonged, heavy rain.

Another potential hazard that was announced today was fairly large lava flows at Arenal. They were big enough to close the park although I doubt that anyone was close enough to them to even feel the slightest bit more warm. Tourists in the area are probably thrilled to have the chance at viewing the eruptions. The Arenal area, by the way, is a great area for birding Costa Rica with rarities such as Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Keel-billed Motmot all possible and I would go there whether Arenal was spitting out lava or not because a lot of the good birding isn’t very close to the volcano anyways.

me and the volcano on a rainless day for birding Costa Rica

Rain or not, I am eager to get out and do some Costa Rica birding even if I have to crawl over a landslide (which I actually once did in the Ecuadorian Andes). The migrants will be gone like this Tennessee Warbler,

After a bite of this banana, I am flying back up to the boreal zone!

but local birds such as the angry-looking Common Tody-Flycatcher will be around and are always fun to watch.

Yeah, I'm common..you wanna make something of it?
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Pocosol: Little known Costa Rica Birding Destination

“Pocosol” may have rhythm as far as words go, but except for the occasional vampire wannabee (or unfortunates who are extremely sensitive to ultraviolet rays), “Little Sunlight” doesn’t sound all that inviting. Despite being strongly diurnal in nature, the Birding Club of Costa Rica was nevertheless undaunted in planning and doing a trip to Pocosol and although we found that the place lived up to its name, we had a great time anyways. Actually, we were a lot more concerned about constant rain than the lack of sunlight and therefore chose to visit Pocosol in September, the driest month at this very humid, Caribbean foothill forest that gets drenched with more than 4 meters of rain per year. This strategy worked out in avoiding the agua but Pocosol still managed to stay true to its name with constant, heavy cloud cover. Even during the driest of times, this cloud cover apparently ensures a high level of humidity. Although the watery air made photography difficult (at least with my silly set-up), it makes Pocosol a haven for frogs. Even without doing a night walk or having any focus on amphibians, we couldn’t help but notice the large number of frogs that were calling and we saw several right around the cabins and on the trails without really searching for them.

Here is an undentified tree frog trying to hide on one of the dormitory windows.

It would have been cool to go herping but that required more than the three days that we dedicated to full time birding. We essentially started at the Pocosol office near the town of La Tigra and saw several of the usual suspects that do well in non-forest and forest-edge habitats. Birds such as Gray Hawk (a juvie that casually flapped by and got all the small birds giving high-pitched alarm calls), Ruddy Ground-Dove, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Groove-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Social Fly, Great Kiskadee, TK, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Passerini’s Tanager, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Common Tody-Flycatcher

While enjoying these common birds, the real treat was seeing hundreds of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, a smattering of Cave Swallows, and a few Purple Martins that were passing over in flock after flock on their way south. Much to our chagrin, this was not a preview of our Pocosol birding experience. We must have got unlucky and hit a a dry spell during fall migration because we saw hardly any warblers, vireos, or thrushes during our stay at Pocosol. One of our only warblers was this Black and White female.

The poor thing was probably exhausted as she attempted to forage and rested on the steps of the dormitory.

At least the resident species were around and the birding was pretty good overall. I admit that I expected more, but that’s the way it goes at high diversity sites; you just have to put in the time and effort if you want to see rare species and a couple days of birding just wasn’t enough for that trip. Sure, we identified something like 130 species but saw no hawk-eagles (and the habitat looked perfect), no Crested Eagle (has been seen here on occasion), dipped on Keel-billed Motmot (Pocosol is a good site for this rare species and means that I have to go back), Black-crested Coquette (we saw few of the flowering trees they prefer), and Lattice-tailed Trogon, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Sharpbill (these three are never guaranteed anywhere).

In any case, most of these are more dependable at the far more accessible Quebrada Gonzalez. When I head for that elusive Motmot (which I may have heard and wrote off as Broad-billed Motmot-they sound very similar), I am going to spend a bit more time birding the road to Pocosol. This will be easy because although the place is just 3 hours from San Jose, it might be best to trot up there on a horse, hike the 13 kilometers from La Tigra, or motor up on an ATV. If you don’t go for one of those options, then be ready to test out the four wheel drive and clearance on your rental vehicle. The first nine kilometers are ok and pass near some nice habitat in the Penas Blancas river valley (where I am sure a morning trip would be great for birding). The other four kilometers also pass near or through birdy-looking areas but you might be too preoccupied with figuring out how to navigate the rocks and furrows to even raise your bins for a TK.

Scenery along the road to Pocosol.

Arriving to Pocosol.

As long as you have four-wheel drive, you will see immediately see why it was worth the efforts in getting here. All around the station is beautiful secondary and primary forest where birds like this Black-faced Grosbeak

and animals such as this Three-toed Sloth can appear at any time. We even saw a group of Spider Monkeys moving through the trees next to the station.

Some of the best birding was right from the balconies in the spacious dormitory building that gave beautiful views into the nearby and distant canopy. We often saw tanagers and other small birds from the balconies and frequently had good looks at Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Although I kept scanning the forested hillside, I saw nary a cotinga and it wasn’t until our final morning that we saw a couple of birds perched out there; a White Hawk and adult King Vulture (always nice!).

View from the balcony.

From the balcony, the nearby lagoon at Pocosol was also visible if fairly birdless (a few Least Grebes and Green Kingfisher). More birds were seen along the trail that led to this crater lake and included small mixed flocks led by Golden-crowned Warblers, Tawny-throated Leaftosser foraging on the trail, Brown-billed Scythebill, and several Thicket Antpittas that called (laughed at us?) from the undergrowth. This hard to see but constantly heard species was pretty common at Pocosol. We heard them from dawn to dusk but only a few of us were lucky enough to glimpse one in the dense second growth they prefer. Trails around the lake passed through abandoned guava plantations and weren’t so good for birds but were great for peccaries. These wild pigs were so concentrated in this area that there must have also been a jaguar or at least a puma around which we of course didn’t see (although others have).

The lagoon at Pocosol.

The other main trail at Pocosol is a loop that goes up onto a ridge, passes by fumaroles, and passes through some of the best primary rain forest I have seen in Costa Rica . Since we did one quick walk here at the slow time of day (mid-morning), we didn’t see too much but still managed Song Wren, Slaty Antwren, heard Dull-mantled Antbird and Black-headed Antthrush, and got fair looks at one, large mixed flock led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager that held Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, most of the tanagers, and Russet Antshrike. The next time I go to Pocosol, I would love to spend a whole day just slowly birding that beautiful trail- it looked like the type of place where rare birds or a cat could show up at any moment.

The other area we birded was along the section of the entrance road closest to the station.

Habitat was more open with lots of Cecropias but there were still quite a few birds. The best were Rufous-winged and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers (fairly common at Pocosol), Immaculate Antbird (h), and great looks at…

Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

We didn’t get lucky with owls but the caretaker has seen Spectacled and Crested right around the station and I heard one Mottled Owl. Speaking of the caretaker, he did a great job and I would go back in a second as the service and food were good, the dormitory rooms comfortable, and the forest as peaceful as it was beautiful. Costs for visiting Pocosol are an affordable $45 per night that includes a bed and meals. They can also provide transportation up the road but charge a lot for it. For more information and making reservations, see http://www.acmcr.org/pocosol_biological_station.html