The two highest volcanoes in Costa Rica are Irazú (3400 m) and Turrialba (3300 m). The high mountain country is a world not seen by most visitors to the Costa Rica. It contrasts strikingly with the sticky tropical climate and flat topography of the lowlands, and its bird and plant life is different again in many ways from that of the Central Valley where most of the nation’s population lives.
I was finally able to explore the surprisingly accessible dirt road connecting the two volcanoes in the first week of April because I had a four-wheel drive vehicle (a Toyota Rav4 – what a delight!) at my disposal during my daughter’s visit. The recent death of our Ford Ranger had made it necessary to rent briefly. Actually, the road has been improved lately and even a two-wheel drive vehicle could probably pass without too much difficulty. The most beautiful section comes between La Central and the road down to Pacayas, before ascending to Irazú, but the whole drive is well worthwhile. Buttercups, daisies and clover! The road comes out just below the official entrance to the Irazú Volcano, a good bit above the museum.
I took two trips, and though neither was dedicated exclusively to birdwatching, I was not only able to become more familiar with some of the more common highland species but also to note two North American species that I had never before seen in Costa Rica, Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) and, quite possibly, Merlin (Falco columbarius).
Despite my having had a pretty good look at the small falcon, at first perched and then in flight, I’m still tempted to assume that it was a female American kestrel because Stiles & Skutch (Birds of Costa Rica) note only one Spring migration sighting, in mid-March. Garrigues & Dean’s more recent and now standard field guide also sets the migration limits between September and mid-March. However, I noted only a faint moustache on this brown-backed bird, and no trace at all of rufous. It alighted twice on high isolated trees before finally taking off fast downslope. My relative unfamiliarity with Merlins adds to my uncertainty. The sighting was in the open dairy country below the tiny hamlet of Guarumus as we descended to the beautiful little mountain town of Pacayas, which is situated more or less between, but below, the two volcanoes. We also saw Red-tailed hawk and Swallow-tailed kite soaring in this same habitat.
The Mourning doves were just a little further down towards Pacayas, but there were at least a dozen of them, some displaying courtship behaviour, and all quite unfazed by our car’s approach. On my second trip, with daughter Mariana two days later, we found a single bird at Capellades, a few kilometers further east and much closer to the Turrialba Volcano than to Irazú. I drive through Capellades very frequently and I will make a point of checking all doves now each time I pass through. Perhaps I overlooked it before.
Access to the Turrialba Volcano is still blocked at the portón about 4 km short of the top, and only a little way above the last hamlet of La Central. Here, the Volcán Turrialba Lodge and the tiny but charming café Danza Con Nubes continue to be much hampered by the lack of tourists.
We saw no one there at all on either trip, despite the stunning beauty of the location. The Lodge seemed out of operation, at least for this week, but we enjoyed chocolate caliente and pan casero at Danza Con Nubes, even though la mujer had not arrived to open the place officially that day.
The section of the Turrialba Volcano road above La Central that still remains open is well worth a visit. Huge amounts of steam pour from the volcano above and the smell of sulphur is noticeable at times. The section just before and right at the portón seems always packed with birds.
An aptly named Large-footed finch (Pezopetes capitalis) developed his feet and leg muscles right at the side of the road, paying us no attention at all, while the three typical, grey mountain finches (keep open p. 288 in Garrigues & Dean!) were all present. I was actually unable to quite pin down the Slaty finch (Haplospiza rustica) this time, but we had good looks at the Peg-billed finch (Acanthidops bairdi) and the Slaty flowerpiercer (Diglossa plumbea) with their differing bill shapes.
The Large-footed finch is a mostly dark-coloured bird, but the Yellow-thighed finch (Pselliophorus tibialis) is also present here. We saw it also feeding close to the ground, but it appears almost as black as the Sooty robin (Turdus nigrescens).
This thrush, known locally as Escarchado (Frost-bitten), together with the Rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), seems to be the lord of the domain in this high country. Its prominent yellow bill and legs are as striking as the sometimes hidden thighs of the aforementioned finch. We saw only the occasional Volcano junco (Junco volcani), a species found normally at the very highest elevations.
The other page to keep open in Garrigues & Dean when you’re in these mountains is p. 246 which has the nightingale-thrushes. Several of these sing almost as beautifully as the famous jilguero, the Black-faced solitaire (Myadestes melanops), which we neither saw nor heard. We did, however, have close looks at Black-billed nightingale-thrush (Catharus gracilirostris), distinguished by the brown band across its breast. while the Slaty-backed nightingale-thrush (Catharus fuscater) sang in the background.
The Orange-billed nightingale-thrush (Catharus aurantiirostris), with its strikingly pretty bill and leg colours, is seen much more often lower down. It did not quite make this list but has appeared recently in San Antonio and Santa Cruz, both at lower elevations.
Another bird found at similar elevations but which I have not yet found at home is the Ochraceous wren (Troglodytes ochraceus), a bright cinnamon version of the House wren. One flew across the road just a little way above Pacayas as we made our way home on the second trip. Near the same location, I saw what I thought were two guans, but they were brown, not black, and must have been simply Gray-headed chachalacas that had climbed too high!
Tanagers were a disappointment, the only sighting being of the Sooty-capped bush-tanager (Chlorospingus pileatus) with its lightning-bolt eye-stripe (Garrigues’ very apt description). The Common bush-tanager (Chlorospingus ophthalmicus) never did appear.
Flycatchers too were at a premium, the only notables being the Mountain elaenia (Elaenia frantzii), a crestless version of the common Yellow-bellied elaenia, and the pretty little Black-capped flycatcher (Empidonax atriceps), one of only two resident empidonax and another highland speciality.
The last group to be mentioned are the hummingbirds. These always give me trouble, and this trip was no exception. The only sure identifications I was able to make were of Fiery-throated hummingbird (Panterpe insignis) which, as usual, refused to show its throat colours, and Purple-throated mountain-gem (Lampornis calolaemus). The former’s blue rump was particularly striking, while the white on the latter’s head was so bright that I thought it was a Snowcap (Microchera albocoronata) at first.
Here are two beautiful photos, taken by Karel Straatman in pretty much the same location, but on a different day.
The tiny Volcano (Selasphorus flammula) and Scintillant (Selasphorus scintilla) hummingbirds look more like large insects at first, and I again had difficulty distinguishing the two. You never seem to get a male with a bright throat colour. Here’s a photo so that you can judge for yourself.
Most other bird photos are courtesy of Karel Straatman, taken at the same location but at another date.
We saw no tourists or birders on either of the two trips, so any unusual sightings you make could turn out to be invaluable. Be sure to greet all the locals as you drive by! As my friend Fabio remarked, gente de pueblo, siempre saluda.