Turrialba Volcano Slope -Quetzals and much more

According to the legend of the Maya Quiché, the blood-red breast of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) represents the spirit of resistance against the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado after the latter’s victory at the highland city of Quetzaltenango (place of the quetzal), Guatemala. This particular species – only one of five – can now still be found from the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico south through Central America as far as western Panama. Modern boundaries between Central America countries are a relatively recent creation and nowadays Costa Rica is perhaps the easiest place to locate this beautiful bird. The species is not a rare one in suitable habitat above 1500 m, and in our area an excursion to the volcano slope above Turrialba can often locate it.

Close-up of a male Resplendent Quetzal at El Tapojo; photo by John Beer

It’s no mean feat, however, to obtain photographs of this quality. Considerable persistence and skill as well as some degree of luck are required. Although the Resplendent Quetzal has always been a not uncommon highland bird, firmly established in our area, it took me several years to discover that I could regularly find it without driving much more than 30 minutes from home in San Antonio de Turrialba. Older village residents tell me that in their boyhood days it could be found in forested areas quite close by. Only with great patience plus knowledge of local conditions did friends John and Milena Beer manage to get these recent spectacular views:

Full-length view of a Resplendent Quetzal, including the tail feathers, which can add up to 30 cm to the male bird’s length. Photo by John Beer.
Male Resplendent Quetzal in partial sunlight; photo by John Beer

Quetzals are members of the trogon family. They often perch quietly for long periods, so if you manage to locate one without disturbing it, you may be able to get a sequence of good photographs, as was the case for John and Milena. In the preceding shot sunlight has pierced the light drizzle and gloom of the cloud forest at El Tapojo. Below, the same male stays faithful to his favourite tree, probably in the vicinity of the nesting hole:

We have been able to identify the Resplendent Quetzal’s preferred sites at El Tapojo but the same area harbours a good number of other extremely interesting mountain species. My last post took a look at a recently fledged Collared Redstart (Myioborus torquatus) but several other highland species have also posed nicely for photos recently. First, here’s a female Barred Becard (Pachyramphos versicolor), a pretty little bird that also nests locally:

Female Barred Becard at El Tapojo; note the prominent eye-ring; photo by John Beer

I have found this bird on very few occasions so far. It seems to turn up quite unexpectedly anywhere between El Tapojo and lower down at Calle Vargas. It was formerly considered to be a flycatcher but it is currently classified with the tityras (see my next post for the Black-crowned Tityra) and cotingas. The male’s plumage is black above, contrasting with the white patches in the wings:

Male Barred Becard, courtesy of Richard Garrigues

Much easier to find is the Spangle-cheeked Tanager (Tangara dowii), a species that is ever-present lower down at Calle Vargas. The individual below was found by John and Milena on the latest El Tapojo excursion:

Spangle-cheeked Tanager at El Tapojo; photo by John Beer

At high elevations the Slaty Flowerpiercer (Diglossa plumbea) with its cutely turned-down bill is easy to find, though its range is restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. The female is attired in drab brown but is often accompanied by the male, who can often look almost blue in colour:

Male Slaty Flowerpiercer, this time lower down at La Pastora; photo by John Beer

You’ll need a close look at this very active little bird before distinguishing it from two other look-alikes, both of which, however, are very hard to find in our area: the Slaty Finch (Spodiornis rusticus) and the equally rare Peg-billed Finch (Acanthidops bairdi). Neither one is really a finch and both are now considered to be closer to the tanager family, Thraupidae. The Peg-billed is found only in Costa Rica (common at Cerro de la Muerte) and western Panama. Even though I suspect that it will be a fruitless search, I always inspect carefully every clump of highland bamboo (chusquea), the seeds of which are a favourite food of both these species. But last week John and Milena struck gold with a Peg-billed Finch at El Tapojo! Revisiting the spot may bring even clearer images but at least identification was made. Here, to the best of my knowledge, is the first photo taken of the Peg-billed Finch in the Turrialba area:

The slate-grey male Peg-billed Finch at El Tapojo; photo by John Beer

The next three species can be expected on the Turrialba Volcano slope and elsewhere in the Costa Rican highlands at any time. The El Tapojo area is mostly above 2500 m, which means that many of the migratory warbler species are rarely found there. But the Black-cheeked Warbler (Basileuterus melanogenys) is one of several resident warblers and is always to be expected in suitable forest habitat. Look for it mostly low down in the understory. The white eyebrow and rufous cap make identification relatively easy:

Black-cheeked Warbler at El Tapojo; photo by John Beer
Black-cheeked Warbler hops out into the clear; photo by John Beer

On the Turrialba Volcano slope the resident woodpecker is the Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and can be found on most visits above around 1700 m. It will already be familiar to all visitors from the USA and Canada though they may be surprised to note that here, farther south, it is a smaller bird. The other common highland woodpecker in Costa Rica is the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) but I have yet to see that species on the Turrialba Volcano slope. Here’s our Hairy Woodpecker:

Hairy Woodpecker; photo by John Beer

The next bird is impossible to miss but you’ll be lucky to see it! The Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (Henicorhina leucophrys) is a small bird, concealing itself in thick vegetation, but with a loud, ringing song that is one of the most typical sounds on the volcano slope. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for John to obtain the following excellent photo of this skulker:

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren; photo by John Beer

The final species for this post is also difficult to photograph since it usually has its head inside one of the large epiphytes that decorate the cloud forest trees. As it rummages inside the epiphyte it throws out debris in considerable quantities. The Buffy Tuftedcheek (Pseudocolaptes lawrencii) eluded me for almost seven years before I finally found it at El Tapojo. Careful searching has brought a rash of sightings since then. Identification of this furnarid, one of only two in its genus, is made easy by the white cheek patch, which can be flared when the bird is alarmed.

Buffy Tufted-cheek; photo by John Beer

Highland species are just one option in the Turrialba area and, although they are much fewer in number than lower down, birding in the cloud forest is a unique experience not to be missed.

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