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Volcan Irazu- Easy High Elevation Birding in Costa Rica

Birding opens the door to an endlessly interesting range of experiences. When you go birding, by definition, the focus is on the birds but since watching birds always involves much more than seeing them, the experience of birding entails far more than birdwatching.

For example, birding can be as mundane as meditating on the goldfinches that come to the feeder out back or as vigorous as making an Olympic grade sprint for a better view of a rare seabird. It can be rocking trips on the rolling blue waters of the open ocean, sharing priceless times with favorite peeps, and exploring new places and countries where you end up eating a Cavy (Guinea Pig) in the Andes.

When you find yourself chewing on that tough rodent meat in Cuzco, you may wonder how on Earth you got there, how on Earth did you end up eating the same species of animal as your eighth grade pet. “Birding” is the simple answer and it will also be the same answer when, after partaking in that meal of rodent, you wonder why you traveled to a place where climbing the stairs makes you feel around 20 or 30 years older. But if you wonder why you are short of breath, your answer won’t exactly be “birding”, it will be “where the heck is the oxygen?” or “high elevation”.

Since birds live almost everywhere, in Costa Rica, we don’t just find birds in the hot, humid rainforests of the lowlands. We also find them at the very tops of the mountains that form the country’s backbone and as one might expect, some of the ones that live way up there, only live way up there. This of course means that if you want to see them (and of course we all do!), you gotta head way up into the mountains.

Mountains, with the slopes of scree, sheer cliffs, ice, and other generally inhospitable facets, aren’t always the easiest of places to visit. I guess it’s why some people feel the need to climb them (a friend of mine does that, I bet he has trudged past vivid blue Grandalas in the Himalayas). In Costa Rica, much to the fortune of birders who would rather not do the climbing thing, we have a nice high mountain (technically a volcano) where you can drive right on up to 11,000 feet! That accessible high elevation birdy spot is Volcan Irazu, here are some expectations and highlights:

Fine High Elevation Birding

Get up above 2,000 meters and roadside birding offers a fine range of montane species. Check out the weirdly wonderful Long-tailed and Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, the easily identifiable Black-capped Flycatcher, clown antics of Acorn Woodpeckers, and views of many a Band-tailed Pigeon in flight.

Spot-crowned Woodcreepers and Collared Redstarts sing from the trees, and Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses rustle the leaves with several more highland endemics in tow. Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are the norm and are joined by Talamanca Hummingbird, Lesser Violetear, and Volcano Hummingbird. Keep an eye out for fruiting trees and you might find a quetzal (they are regular up on Irazu), Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges haunt the brush, and the tooting vocalization of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl may give away its position.

Keep on birding and you might even get lucky with one of the toughest widespread birds in the Neotropical region, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. A fair number seem to live on Irazu but they probably escape detection because they tend to be shy and rarely come into the open.

Potato Fields and Forest Patches

Being a volcano, Irazu has rich dark soils that have been used to grow crops for centuries. As you ascend the volcano, you will drive through several fields of soup ingredients; onions, taters, and carrots. These are dotted here and there with remnants of high elevation oak forest, unsurprisingly, the largest patches tend to have the best birding.

Forest patch birding is generally restricted to the roadside but it’s still good, just be careful how you park your car. For the best forest access, see the Nochebuena bit below.

MODOs in Costa Rica

As in Mourning Doves. I know, not exciting but since this North American suburban standby is very localized in Costa Rica, we get a kick out of seeing and hearing so many of them when ascending Irazu. It’s also a reminder that yes, that bird that sounds like a MODO while you watch a Fiery-throated Hummingbird is definitely a Dove a la Mourning.

The Highest of the High Elevation Birds

In Costa Rica, while more species live in the lower, more tropical elevations, there are a few special birds that managed to become adapted to the highest points in the nation. Two of them even became more or less restricted to the brushy treeline habitats that occur on Irazu, Turrialba, and the high Talamancas. This pair of birds of dramatic surroundings are the Volcano Junco and the Timberline Wren.

On Irazu, the wren can occur down to the Nochebuena area but the junco usually requires a drive right on up to the paramo at the edge of the national park. Once you arrive, don’t expect to see them right away. If it’s sunny, it might take especially long for them to appear. However, if you bird that paramo in the cold early morning, you will have good chance of connecting.

The wrens are fairly common but skulky. In keeping with typical wren fashion, they often give a fastidious call. The juncos aren’t as common as one might expect. They seem to occur in low density populations but unlike the wren, they aren’t the least bit shy about singing from the tops of bushes or hopping next to the car.

The Nochebuena Trails and Restaurant

This classic site is a must for any birding visit to Irazu. Even if you don’t feel like walking their trails (some of them uphill and with less oxygen than you are might be used to), it’s still worth visiting the small and friendly diner for a coffee and pecan pie or some other tasty home-cooked cuisine. While eating, you will probably be entertained by views of 4 species of hummingbirds, flyby Acorn Woodpeckers, Flame-colored Tanagers, and other species.

I hope you do feel like walking the trails though; it’s a beautiful hike. Take your time, be ready for some mud, and explore for wood-partridges, the pygmy-owl, and many other species. Listen carefully and keep a close eye out for the ground-dove, this is the best place to find it! After the trail passes through the fields, it eventually enters forest with a lot of bamboo. Timberline Wren is present along with nice mixed flocks of expected species as well as chances at the rare Slaty Finch and Peg-billed Finches.

The high elevation birding experience also has its other charms, not the least of which are the fantastic views.

A morning of birding Irazu is a good way to get an easy fix of high elevation birds and makes for a good birding day trip from the San Jose area. If you stay until dark, you can also look for nocturnal species including the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Whether just birding during the day or into the night, be prepared for very cool and rainy weather. If staying for the night, contact the Nochebuena, they also have a cabin that can be rented.

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Finding Rare Birds on Irazu

Irazu is an 11,000 plus foot high volcano just outside of San Jose. I can see it looming large just outside my back window and can even discern the cell towers right up on top. Heck, if I had a 10,000 zoom scope, I would just point it at the mountain and scan for Silvery-throated Jay, quetzals, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. As long as we are in the realm of imagination, I might as well mention that teleporting up there would be way better than a telescope. That would be so much easier than creeping through traffic to reach Cartago followed by a subsequent drive on up to the upper reaches of the volcano. But don’t assume that the fun stops once you make it to the volcano. To see some of those rarities, there’s a fair chance that you will still need to scuff your way up some steep slopes or freeze the feet in cold, wet grass.

During the day, the view is pretty nice from high up on the volcano.

At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove.

Yes, this ground-dove that pretends to be a quail-dove was very nice to Robert, Susan, and I this past Sunday. It called almost non-stop and even gave us time to trudge up slope and get into a position where we could inspect it in detail. To start things off, a female briefly showed before the male made an appearance. We got brief looks at both before they fluttered off and we were indeed pleased but the rare ground-dove experience wasn’t over yet. Much to our joy, the male started calling again and did so from a spot where we could watch it for 15 minutes (since almost no one ever sees this bird, those were some 15 precious minutes).

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove with eyes closed.

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove from the side.

Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.

The look of success.

The ground-dove is probably the rarest regularly occurring species on Irazu. It is, no doubt, always present but if it isn’t calling as it forages in thick vegetation, you would never know it was there. As far as rarity on Irazu goes, it’s only superseded by the Oilbird. Now for that one, we just don’t even have any idea if it shows up on a regular basis or if it’s a vagrant. Assessment evades because the bird is nocturnal and doesn’t call as nearly as much as an owl. In other words, how the heck would you know if it was around, especially when you would have to chance upon one in the cold, often rainy night?

Speaking of night, Irazu is also a good spot for the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. If you thought saw-whets from the north were tough, its more southerly cousin takes the owl-spotting challenge to a new level (and you thought that “Unspotted” referred to its plumage…). I don’t think anyone has ever seen a roosting one in Costa Rica and maybe not anywhere else either. To see it, you have to head out into the cold night and listen for a calling bird during calm weather. With luck, you will be able to track down the calling nocturnal creature, find it, and prove to youirself that yes, it does look like a plush toy. After that, you can go back to the car and try to unfreeze your toes after pouring yourself a celebratory drink, spiked coffee seems appropriate.

Irazu can also be good for Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl.

While the owl is present on Irazu, it still isn’t common. Like the ground-dove, it’s a naturally rare bird that always requires more than casual birding to find it. The same goes for some other species that make their home up there on the volcano. For example, Peg-billed Finch and Slaty Finch also occur but nope, sorry, not common. Downright rare and they require lots of looking. The Peg-billed is certainly less difficult than the Slaty because after glassing 30 or so Slaty Flowerpiercers in the paramo, you eventually find one. Not so for the Slaty Finch. For that pseudo-junco weirdo, seeding bamboo is key but guess what? You can still have seeding bamboo and neither hear nor see it! That’s what happened after we looked for the ground-dove. After birding a very nice area of seeding bamboo, we were surprised to neither see nor hear Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, or other bamboo birds, especially because Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles head them the previous week.

Peg-billed Finches chowing down on bamboo seeds.

But, that’s how it is with rare birds. There are so few of them that it’s just naturally tough to locate them. As with any needle in the haystack experience, chances at success are correlated with number of observers. Go up there with a bunch of people, spread out, and have everyone looking and you might find the rare ones. In the mean time, when birding on Irazu, at least you can also be entertained by the calls of Buffy-crowned Wood-Patridge (might see one too), and views of Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, silky-flycatchers, and Resplendent Quetzal

Black and yellow silky Flycatcher

A big thanks goes out to Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles- they found the ground-dove and other rare birds the week before and were gracious with the gen.

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Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

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Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

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A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

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I love the dark green nape!

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This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

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a Resplendent Quetzal!

First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

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It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

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Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

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Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

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A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

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The one sunny spot on Irazu.

Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.