Its red breast glistened in the branches of the tree. Marino Chacon, our guide and one of the owners of Savegre Mountain Hotel, had stopped along the side of the road a short distance from the lodge where the Resplendent Quetzal was known to hang out. While we watched through our binoculars, Marino set up his scope. When I took my turn, I was awed by the statuesque beauty of this male bird – a must-see for my trip to Costa Rica.
“Follow me,” Marino instructed as he opened the fence into the pasture where the Quetzal was perched. “Let’s get a better look”
As we tromped across the spongy clumps of grass, it reminded me of traipsing across the uneven tundra along the Denali Highway in Alaska. As we walked into the pasture, the Quetzal flew to another tree in the field, its tail flying. Its teal wing feathers appeared iridescent in the early morning light.
Sue and Bill, my traveling companions, and I had traveled to Costa Rica several days prior to our birding tour to bird in the village of San Gerardo de dota, 2 hours southeast of San Jose. Marino’s son, Felipe picked us up the prior day from our hotel just north of San Jose.
“Be sure and let your guide know you are serious birders,” he advised. “Some visitors only want to see the Quetzal. Make sure you go to the páramo.”
While the Quetzal was a high priority, we wanted to see as many of the high altitude birds as possible – several of which can only be seen in this part of Costa Rica.
After getting some digiscoped pictures of the Quetzal, Marino began to point out the other birds in the meadow area. For the next hour we kept up with the bird activity. Marino helped us get good looks at Gray-breasted Wood Wrens as they scampered in the low bushes, Mountain Elania, Olive-striped Flycatchers and Dark Peewees as they flew out to catch insects, Flame-throated Warblers buzzing in the oaks, and a singing Rufous-browed Peppershrike. Neotropical migrants – Wilson’s Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers flitted in the tree tops.
“I want you to see the bill on this one,” Marino told us as he adjusted his scope to focus on a Tufted Flycatcher. “Look carefully, you can see the barbed end of the bill which it uses to snag insects.”
We watched incredulously while two hummingbirds copulated as they flew across the field, giving the appearance of a bird with four wings.
Moments later a Quetzal came within a few feet of us as it buzzed to another tree.
We walked up further to see the wild aguacate (avocado) tree with its small fruits way on top of the tree.
Then it was time to move on – there were many more birds and habitats to visit.
Marino drove us through the valley and we began our ascent up the other side where we stopped at a modest house with a sign Se Venden Matas (plants for sale) where a woman had a stand along the road. She feeds the birds behind her house. She threw out rice to attract the birds. At first Rufous-collared Sparrows swooped in. Pretty soon our target bird, the Large-footed Finch arrived. A black-billed Nightingale-thrush stopped by. Across the road Marino called in the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher.
Then up, up we drove into the clouds at the crest of the Talamanca Cordilleran. This area is referred to Cerro de la Muerte (dead hill) or the páramo (moor), and is above the tree line at 11,400 feet in elevation – the highest point in Costa Rica. We parked in an area dotted with cell phone and satellite towers. The fog swirled around us, a light rain came at us sideways in the brisk wind. The rocky ground had a variety of tundra plants and lichens.
“Let’s walk down a bit to get out of the wind,” Marino suggested. We followed him down a rocky slope where he began calling the Timberline Wren.
We finally got good looks at the elusive and extremely localized bird. It was amazing to see two species of hummingbirds – Volcano and Fiery-throated – buzzing around at this altitude. Our other sighting was of the Volcano Junco, casually foraging in the tufts of grass.
Our next stop was along a road in the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. The rain was coming down, and I was glad I was wearing a rain jacket and water-repellent pants. As we walked along the road, Marino heard the plaintive caow caow call of the Collared Trogan and was able to call it in closer so we could get a good look at its red breast and green head.
“Come stand here,” Marino called. He had found a striking Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, a rare bird for the area. Unlike the silky flycatcher we had seen earlier, this one didn’t have a crest.
The Volcano Hummingbirds males were calling on territory, and we were able to get a really good look at the rainbow throat of a Fiery-throated Hummingbird, as well as Magnificent Hummingbirds and White-throated Mountain Gems.
Through rain-streaked lenses we also saw a Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-billed Cacique, Sooty-capped Bush Tanager and Barred Becard.
While Marino went to get the vehicle, Sue, Bill and I noticed a large black bird glide down from a tree on the slope below us. “We saw a Black Vulture fly down,” Bill told Marino when he returned.
“Black Vultures don’t live up here. That was a Black Guan,” he replied. “They generally stay in the same area, so we should be able to find it.” Sure enough, after a few minutes, we located it and could see its bright blue bill.
And, then it was time to return to the lodge for a late lunch. Back in the valley, there was no trace of the rain and the sun was shining.
“I want to show you a cloud forest,” Marino told us after lunch, and we piled into the vehicle and headed up a rough dirt road for a mile or so, and then parked. The sky was a deep azure blue, and from this vantage point we could see out over the valley below on one side and the Chacon’s private biological preserve on the other. The trees had tall trunks, with foliage only on the very top, with an under-story of tropical plants.
While Marino was checking out a baby woodcreeper that was calling, I saw something orange fly into a distant tree. “There is a trogon,” I said. “It’s orange.” We put the scope on it – an Orange-bellied Trogon.
We trekked up the Sendero Los Robles (The Oaks Trail), stopping to check out new birds, including the colorful Collared Redstarts and Yellow-thighed Finches.
At one point we bushwhacked our way through the bushes to locate a Spotted-crowned Woodcreeper carrying food to her babies.
“Watch that hole up there,” Marino instructed. “I am going to tap on the tree. A Buffy Tuftedcheek, a type of woodcreeper, should look out.” Sure enough, a head popped out, its check feathers flared out giving it an owl-like appearance.
It was time to head down the mountain. As dusk neared, we stopped to admire the view of the cloud-shrouded Talamanca Mountains. It had been a day full of new birds and the opportunity to experience four different biological life zones. We would sleep well tonight in the cold mountain air, dreaming of wandering their beautiful gardens, watching the hummingbird feeders and observing more birds in the morning before we headed back to the Central Valley.