Costa Rica is a pretty mountainous place. When I glance out the window of our second story home, I can see the Cordillera Central off to my left, the hulking Irazu Volcano in front, and the ranges of the Talamancan and Escazu Mountains off to my right. Having grown up in non-mountainous Niagara Falls, New York, I always get a kick out of that windowpane scene but it’s much better to actually head up into those higher elevations. There’s birds up in them there hills (extinct and active volcanoes actually) and a lot of them are endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. There are also wide ranging neotropical species that inhabit those mountains but, by default, they usually play second string to endemics that don’t occur beyond a two hundred mile or so radius.
As far as highland birds to become familiar with before a birding trip to Costa Rica, here are a handful of some common, cool birds that you will probably see. Not all of them are endemics but as one of my high school pals used to say, “That’s the way the ball bounces”:
1. Common Bush Tanager– It’s not exactly exciting but you will surely see them when birding any middle elevation forests in Costa Rica so it’s a good bird to know. This is a widespread bird species but with so many subspecies, who knows, maybe they will all get split some day. Also, unless you are looking at a quetzal or antpitta, don’t just shrug Common Bush-Tanagers off because unlike most other Costa Rican birds, these chunky little dudes respond to spishing. They often come in to check out that odd shushing noise and can attract other birds if they really start to chatter in response. Things like wood-wrens, brush-finches, warblers, thrushes, and even treehunters can suddenly pop into view.
The ever common Common Bush-Tanager.
2. Purple-throated Mountain-Gem– Unlike the bush-tanager, this one is an endemic to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It’s pretty easy to see in any cloud forest and is a smart looking little bird. Like most hummingbirds, they love feeders so you will see them there. You should also see them in most highland forest and edge habitats. Watch for that white line on the face kind of like a White-eared Hummingbird.
A frontal view of a male Purple-throated Mountain Gem.
A side view of a male showing that face stripe.
The females are pretty smart looking too.
3. Ruddy Treerunner– These common, highland birds creep rather than run up trees. They usually go with mixed flocks and are pretty easy to identify with their rufous back and white eyebrow.
Not what you would call a stellar photo of a Ruddy Treerunner but at least it realistically shows how they are often seen.
4. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper– This is the most common woodcreeper of highland forests above 2,000 meters and in many montane sites, is the only woodcreeper. You will see them both with and away from mixed flocks.
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the default high elevation woodcreeper when birding Costa Rica.
5. Mountain Elaenia– This is a super common flycatcher anywhere in the mountains that loves edge habitats so be ready to see lots of them. If you spot a confusing, Empid-like flycatcher in the highlands, it’s probably this bird. Note the short bill, eye ring, and whitish edging to the tertials.
A Mountain Elaenia doing its usual thing of pretending to be a flycatcher from another genus.
6. Ochraceous Wren– These tiny Winter-Wrenish birds are super common in montane forests of Costa Rica (and a good thing too because you can only see them there and in western Panama). However, unless you know the vocalizations, they get overlooked due to their canopy skulking prowess. Ok, so maybe they aren’t canopy skulkers on purpose but their tendency to hang out in the mossy, epiphytic realm of highland treetops can make them pretty hard to see.
As you can see from this insipid image, I still haven’t been able to get a good photo of an Ochraceous Wren.
7. Flame-colored Tanager– You may have added this pretty bird to your ABA list in Arizona, or seen lots in the highland conifers of Mexico. Come to Costa Rica and you will also run across them at just about any montane site in the Central and Talamancan Mountains.
8. Spangle-cheeked Tanager– Another common tanager of montane forests, this one is a glittering regional endemic. They sometimes troop around in large flocks, occasional bits of iridescence shining in the misty forest.
A Spangle-cheeked Tanager from Tapanti National Park.
9. Slaty Flowerpiercer– This is another super common small bird of the Costa Rican highlands. It’s hyperactive as a a Kindergarten class let loose in the Wonka factory but you will get looks at them by hanging around flowering bushes. I finally got an Ok shot of a singing male at Volcan Barva.
Check out the crazy bill of this Slaty Flowerpiercer. It looks like a hefty bird in this image but trust me, these things are dainty.
10. Mountain Robin– It’s hard to get duller looking than this but they are really common in the Costa Rican highlands so they are good to know.