After weeks of rain, it was good to take advantage of a dry afternoon and drive from Santa Cruz up Calle Vargas, almost to Las Abras, and then to the dairy community at Las Virtudes.
This is one of the few local roads that I had not explored and it yielded two life birds, one of which I had been avidly seeking for some time. The weather did not really cooperate, as I got soaking wet each time the rain and mist drifted in. This is high country, starting from Santa Cruz at 1500 m and probably reaching around 2000 m at Las Virtudes, formerly a noted haunt of quetzals. I was able to speak to various residents at Las Virtudes, some of whom assured me that quetzals could no longer be found there. Others begged to differ mentioning sightings as recently as one month ago and it certainly looks to me that there is still enough habitat to support them.
The road from Santa Cruz, called Calle Vargas and supporting a separate dairy community, is a dirt road that presents some problems after the turn-off to Las Virtudes. I found little bird activity at the first stopping points but managed to spot a pretty pair of Emerald Toucanets (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) at the first river crossing as the first rain shower came in. Here’s a photo from Karel Straatman’s extensive collection:
At the turn-off for Las Virtudes I decided the road was too bad to continue to Las Abras, but it’s a beautiful spot and I parked and spent a good while there. The road to Las Abras, and then on to Los Bajos del Volcán, descends here briefly to the crossing over the Rio Guayabo and then rises steeply, with a sheer cliff rising on the left (in the right in the photo below) and a huge drop (here not visible, on the right) down to the river below. It is here that our Santa Cruz neighbour was killed last week when, coming downhill, he attempted to skirt the huge rock fall during torrential rain. The debris has now been moved to the side. The gloom and the desolation caused by the rock-slide gave pause for reflection on the uncertainty of our lives.
Below the cliff, a solitary surviving patch of vegetation held a little family of three Yellowish Flycatchers (Empidonax flavescens). Both parents were feeding a single hungry juvenile. This is a resident empidonax of the highlands that is relatively easy to identify from its yellowish plumage, slightly peaked head and, in particular, the eye-ring conspicuous behind the eye. Here is a beautiful photo by kind courtesy of Richard Garrigues.
A very loud wren singing very close by was certainly the Gray-breasted Wood-wren, and Slate-throated Redstarts were also in the vicinity.
Discretion being the better part of valour, I turned left uphill towards Las Virtudes, from where there is a paved road leading very steeply back downhill to Santa Cruz. At the church and bridge over the Rio Guayabo (now a mere stream) Black Guan is to be expected. I had no luck with that one, and at first only species that are common in San Antonio were to be seen (Blue-and-white Swallow, nesting under the church eaves, Social Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird). The thick vegetation along and above the river finally produced one or two nice birds, despite the sometimes heavy rain: a Green Hermit (Phaethornis guy) here at the highest elevation of its range, some Mountain Elaenias (Elaenia frantzii) very close up, and then, a life bird for me, the Rufous-browed Peppershrike (Cyclarhis gujanensis). This species is a large vireo with yellow underparts and a heavy bill. Only very briefly did I see the rufous superciliary because the bird was inside thick vegetation, feeding acrobatically on what seemed to be a red fruit but could have been an insect, I suppose. It is another of those “fairly common” species that have eluded me over the years despite being in their home territory. Many thanks to Richard Garrigues for the photo below.
Another rain shower drove me downhill towards Santa Cruz, but I stopped almost immediately at a beautiful place affording great views up towards the Turrialba Volcano, which was invisible today of course. A Collared Trogon called in the background as I peered through the rain at the top of a roadside bush, where my first ever Prong-billed Barbet (Semnornis frantzii) posed unashamedly. This is yet another common highland species that has seemingly fled at my approach repeatedly over the years. It’s a beautiful bird with a bright yellowish forehead and throat set off by a lovely, and large, blue-grey bill. Neighbour Fabio Orlando Zúñiga has often told me to listen for the loud cocora (usual Spanish name) calls of the checho (local name hereabouts), which usually roams in small flocks. Today I saw just the one but heard the co-co-co-co call in the distance behind.
Two life birds in one day, and within a short drive of home! That’s Costa Rica!