Long overnight trips aren’t absolutely necessary for great birding in Costa Rica. Oh, they can help (!) and, for some places and birds, are necessary and awesome but they aren’t the only options. “Good birding” is where the habitat it, it’s what you want to see and how you feel like doing your birding.
I get a kick out of all sorts of birding but if I had to pick a favorite, it might be listening to the dawn chorus in any high quality habitat. A new day gives rebirth to new birds, listen close and you pick up the sounds of hidden things, of birds whispering, some shouting, daring you to find them when as the day matures.
It’s an exciting celebration of life and the best you can do is just listen and take it all in. Some of my best dawn chorus days were in the Amazonian forests of Tambopata, Peru. Thanks to Rainforest Expeditions, I could venture into the early morning forest, sit and listen, and hear well over 100 species in less than an hour. Even if you stayed in bed and just listened, you might count the sounds of 60 species including occasional Blue-headed Macaws, Black-throated Antbirds, and Lemon-throated Barbets.
Once in a while, my roommate and friend Rudy Gelis would do that, calling out bird names from each of our respective mosquito-net dens. “Orange-cheeked Parrot”, “Gilded Barbet”, “Spotted Puffbird”!
Their names sound like candy, to the birding eye and searching mind, they were indeed blueberry delight, chocolate-covered licorice, and heavenly citrus sorbet. In Costa Rica, we also have our dessert birds and many of them can be seen on easy birding day trips from the San Jose area. For the following three suggestions, you don’t even have to be there at the break of dawn. That’s always nice but arrive later and there will still be birds:
Poas and Varablanca
From the San Jose area, especially near the airport, the highland habitats of Poas are a quick 45 minute drive. Make your way up the mountain and a healthy variety of highland species are suddenly in reach. The best habitat is on the upper parts of the road to Poas, a few spots between Varablanca and Los Cartagos, and on the San Rafael de Varablanca road.
Roadside birding can turn up anything from Mountain Elaenias to Resplendent Quetzal and Barred Parakeets. Seeing the quetzals usually depends on finding their food source but the fun part of that is seeing other birds during the search. Mixed flock action often hosts one or two species of chlorospingus, Slaty Flowerpiercers, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, and others of the cool mountain bio-realms.
Roadside birding can even include such crazies as Black Guan, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Buffy Tuftedcheek. Get up there and bird but don’t go on a Sunday afternoon. That’s when local motorcycle and car enthusiasts tend to flock to the scene and “call” in a most non-melodic fashion.
Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro
Also in the Poas area, these middle elevation sites could be mixed with higher elevation birding. If you have just one day to go birding from the San Jose area, I recommend a full day that includes Cinchona and Poas. If you have more than one day to work with, it’s worth allocating a day each to high elevations and middle/foothill elevations of Cinchona and Socorro.
Cinchona is a classic site with fantastic close looks at hummingbirds, barbets, and toucanets. For many birders, it feels like a dream come true and I guess it sort of is. I’ve been there dozens of times and still look forward to every visit.
Virgen del Socorro is a bit further down the hill and is slightly rough enough to require a four wheel drive vehicle. At 800 meters, you start to get into foothill tanager territory shared with Slaty-capped Flycatchers, White Hawk, and many additional species. Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga are both very rare but always possible. I wish I could say the same for Solitary Eagle; although there are reliable sightings of this species from this site 30 years ago, I haven’t heard of any since. Even so, the connection of forests in this area to more forest in Braulio Carrillo National Park makes for wishful thinking. Keep an eye on the skies and take pictures of big raptors (as if a birder wouldn’t…)!
Nectar and Pollen and Quebrada Gonzalez
Nectar and Pollen might sound like a boutique for bees but for hummingbirds and the birders who like them, this is the real deal. A new site just outside of Braulio Carrillo, the extensive flowering Porterweed with Snowcaps and coquettes makes Nectar and Pollen a nice substitute for the presently inaccessible site known as El Tapir.
The friendly owner charges a very reasonable entrance fee and requires a reservation to open. Contact him at the Nectar and Pollen Reserve Facebook site. If you have any difficulties communicating, let me know, I would be happy to help.
The foothill rainforests of Quebrada Gonzalez are just uphill from Nectar and Pollen and are the perfect accompaniment to edge birding. The forest trails can turn up excellent mixed flocks of tanagers and many forest species including shade-loving shy birds like Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, ant-following birds, and many other species. The very fortunate birder could also find less common species including anything from Olive-backed Quail-Dove to Yellow-eared Toucanet, the Caribbean slope subspecies (and possible split) Streak-chested Antpitta, and maybe even Black-crowned Antpitta.
If you feel like reviving for a day in rich foothill rainforest, Quebrada Gonzalez is the perfect place to do this. Since the park doesn’t open until 8 a.m., it’s worth visiting Nectar and Pollen from 6 to 8 before going to Quebrada Gonzalez.
These sites might sound familiar to folks who have followed this blog. I have indeed extolled the birding virtues of such places in more than one piece but it’s not without warrant. These are places with easily accessible, quality habitat, places that always come with an automatic chance of seeing something rare or unexpected. To learn more about these and other places to go birding in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.
If you would like a local guide who knows where the birds are, I would be happy to be of help, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope to see you some day in Costa Rica, until then, may you have long days and pleasant nights, and happy birding!