Muñeco – top-class birding location

The tiny hamlet of Muñeco is located at about 1200 m elevation, west of the beautiful Orosi Valley and is within easy reach of both Cartago, ex-capital of Costa Rica and true historical foundation of the Spanish colony, and the adjacent town of Paraíso. Several tracks run by and above the Río Sombrero and the Río Patarrá and offer excellent birding.

Rio Sombrero and Iglesia Muñeco

Río Sombrero below the Muñeco church

John Beer and I spent a morning exploring but, as is often the case, we missed many more species than those we were able to identify. A woodpecker species that is not easy to find closer to our home area of Turrialba (more than an hour’s drive away) is the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). As its name implies this species prefers oak forests, and it is famous in the southern USA for stashing its acorns in holes that it hammers in stumps and telegraph poles.

Woodpecker, Acorn, pair, Muñeco (2)

A pair of Acorn Woodpeckers near Río Patarrá

In some highland areas of Costa Rica it is quite common, but I personally have never seen its typical ‘clown face’ near the Turrialba Volcano.

We began the day with hawk sightings over the village but some distance away. We eventually thought that the two that we best saw were a light and a dark morph respectively of the Short-tailed Hawk (Buteo brachyurus). This medium-sized hawk is not particularly short-tailed but is considered to be one of the commonest raptors to be seen soaring in Costa Rica (Garrigues & Dean). A Barred Forest-Falcon (Micrastur ruficollis) called loudly from not too far away but we were unable to find it.


Surprisingly, the only hummingbird that showed itself clearly was the Purple-throated Mountain-gem (Lampornis calolaemus). There are three lampornis species in the country, all with a distinctive white post-ocular stripe, but at Muñeco we were actually on the look-out for the White-bellied Mountain-gem (Lampornis hemileucus), which is consistently reported from this area. Instead we were treated to good views of more than one female lampornis with completely cinnamon-rufous underparts.

Hummingbird Mountain-gem, Purple-throated female, Santa Rosa (3)

John Beer’s photo above of a female Purple-throated Mountain-Gem was taken at Santa Rosa de Turrialba. Hummingbirds with rufous-cinnamon underparts are a fairly common sight at middle elevations on the Turrialba Volcano slope and are always (I believe) the female of the Purple-throated, calolaemus. Since the female hemileucus has a white belly, we were able to eliminate that species from our observations in Muñeco. Here’s a photo of a female hemileucus from John Beer’s files:

Hummingbird, Mountain-gem, White-bellied, female, Colonias La Suiza (1)

Female White-bellied Mountain-gem at La Suiza, Turrialba; seen at the right angle the white post-ocular stripe eliminates almost all hummingbird species except mountain-gems

However, since the female of the third lampornis, the White-throated Mountain-gem (Lampornis castaneoventris) (the Latin means chestnut-bellied), is pretty much identical to the female calolaemus, we had a problem until we could clearly see a male. All-dark plumage below then made it clear that we had calolaemus. Below is a file photo of a male that happily sat in the right position for friend Karel Straatman some years ago:

134 Purple-throated mountain-gem male (2)

Male Purple-throated Mountain-gem, courtesy of Karel Straatman

The maps in Garrigues & Dean, p. 154, second edition, show that, while these three species are all endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama, calolaemus is generally found further north and west and castaneoventris further south and east. The White-bellied (hemileucus) seems more restricted to the Caribbean middle elevations and highlands but can be found almost the length of the country. I have, nonetheless, not been able to see hemileucus at the Turrialba Volcano. Hybrids are supposedly possible, but identification of those is probably well beyond my capabilities.

Our only good views of Furnariidae (woodcreepers and such) were of the little Wedge-billed Woodcreeper (Glyphorynchus spirurus) and of a pair of acrobatic Red-faced Spinetails (Cranioleuca erythrops).

Red-faced Spinetail clings to a small branch

The Rufous-browed Peppershrike (Cyclarhis gujanensis) is a bird I have rarely seen despite its rating of ‘fairly common’. On this occasion I was afforded only a tantalizing glimpse of this rather large vireo but cannot resist mentioning it. Here’s a file photo by kind permission of Richard Garrigues:


Rufous-browed Peppershrike, courtesy of Richard Garrigues

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (Henicorhina leucophrys) and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus fuscater) were among the common, middle-elevation birds whose beautiful voices we heard. Since we were in the overlap zone for both Gray-breasted and White-breasted Wood-Wren (Henicorhina leucosticta), perhaps the latter was also a possibility. I find it hard to distinguish the songs of these two very similar species but the only pair I actually saw were leucophrys.

We found several tanager species, chief among which were Silver-throated Tanager (Tangara icterocephala) and Spangle-cheeked Tanager (Tangara dowii).

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

We also had good views of two really beautiful euphonia species, the beautifully green Golden-browed Chlorophonia (Chlorophonia callophrys) and the blue-capped Elegant Euphonia (Euphonia elegantissima). The latter appears regularly at my home in San Antonio on the Turrialba Volcano slope, but to find the chlorophonia I must climb a little higher. Under difficult conditions John was able to get photos of both these species:

Female Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Female Elegant Euphonia

The uphill path we took from Muñeco was originally a dirt road, built many decades ago by the electricity company to gain access to the upper reaches of a key watershed for hydroelectric and drinking water for the capital. The existence of this road on John’s treasured and old but detailed maps sparked his interest; hence our visit to this wonderful place. This reminds us to keep checking out abandoned roads (and railways), which are excellent environments for birders. Although we covered about 3 km and were in fairly dense secondary forest most of the way, locals informed us that even higher up ‘real’ forest begins! We look forward very much to a subsequent exploration.

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