Highland Excursion – Quetzals and much more

Male Golden-browed Chlorophonia – a common endemic species in highland Costa Rica and western Panama from 1,000 m up to timberline; photo by Larry Waddell, a little bit blurry but still breathtakingly beautiful

This excursion, which unavoidably now dates back to February 7, 2021, is another great example of how fortunate I am when it comes to birding. How many people apart from me get invited regularly on trips with a professional bird guide and/or expert photographers, who identify and document sightings in a variety of truly beautiful habitats?

Los Bajos road just below La Lorena

Since we were about to head for the Los Bajos road and the upper slopes of the Turrialba Volcano, at 6:30 am I was waiting for Steven and Daniel to pick me up at my gate. To my surprise they arrived with a new sighting for San Antonio, a Merlin (Falco columbarius). Looking downhill it was still visible, perched in the tree at Las Musas, the lawyers’ house, where more than 500 Cattle Egrets roost each night. The egrets had very wisely already vacated the tree and left for the nearby cattle pastures while the Merlin munched happily on some poor songbird. The Merlin is considered a rare migrant species in Costa Rica, seen mostly at higher elevations from September to mid-March. This was only my tenth sighting in these many years in the country and my first in the village at home.

Merlin, by sheer coincidence at Calle Vargas, in late October, 2020; photo by John Beer

It was to become the second falcon of the day because half an hour later we spotted a resident Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis) on a similar bare perch further up the slope at Calle Vargas. What a great start to the day!

In 2020 John found this Bat Falcon on that same late-October date last year. Where? Calle Vargas!! Photo by John Beer

Our main target species included, as always in the highlands, the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal, but also the Blue Seedeater that I had only glimpsed in highland bamboo the previous November. Although that sighting of a tawny female was able to be confirmed, I regarded it as very unsatisfactory and hoped very much that we would find it at the same or a nearby location. It was not to be. Despite a thorough search of every clump of chusquea, no Blue Seedeater appeared.

Section of Turrialba Volcano cloud forest; photo by Larry Waddell

Initial highland cloud-forest bird sounds included the persistent call of a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove (Geotrygon costaricensis), the chirps of a flock of Barred Parakeet (Bolborhynchus lineola) passing and re-passing overhead, and the thin twitter of an Ochraceous Wren (Troglodytes ochraceus). A good look at any of these three species is definitely a red-letter day. Other ‘voice only’ birds on this particular mountain excursion were Northern Emerald-Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus), sounding like the barking of a small dog, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo (Scytalopus argentifrons), Wrenthrush (Zeledonia coronata), Yellow-billed Cacique (Amblycercus holosericeus), and Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris). The cacique was a surprise to me even though it is considered fairly common in most parts of the country and can be found in suitable thick undergrowth as high as timberline. I know that it has been heard calling on the Rio Guayabito river bank in our village of San Antonio and yet I have never found it myself. The others are reasonably common highland species though much more often heard than seen. The Wrenthrush and the Tapaculo are particularly notorious for their ability to stay concealed even when close to the listener. Strangely, the Collared Trogon (which now finally, we hope, includes the formerly split Orange-bellied Trogon) is often harder to locate than the much sought-after Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), which is also a species of trogon. This proved to be very much the case on this day when we had good views of as many as 5 quetzals but never caught sight of a Collared Trogon. Here’s a file photo of a male Resplendent Quetzal taken in the same general area:

Male Resplendent Quetzal at El Tapojo on the Turrialba Volcano slope

As is often the case, I managed to miss completely several species either seen or heard by Steven and Daniel. One of these was a Streak-breasted Treehunter (Thripadectes rufobrunneus), a bird rated as fairly common at middle elevations and in the highlands. This is yet another Furnarid that is endemic to Costa Rica and neighbouring western Panama and that I have never clearly seen or heard, despite a relative abundance of local reports. Ah well, it remains something to look forward to.

After some initial frustration, we finally managed to get good views of many of the most typical highland species. In mixed flocks high up the volcano slope, the Sooty-capped Chlorospingus (Chlorospingus pileatus) is usually the core species:

Sooty-capped Chlorospingus at El Tapajo; photo by Larry Waddell

You can also find a very nice picture from the Los Bajos road excursion of a female Barred Becard (Pachyramphus versicolor), courtesy of Daniel Martínez, on our eBird report, which is available at: https://ebird.org/checklist/S80601756.

And finally, on the way back down towards Las Abras we were fortunate to get a good look at a migrant Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) in flight overhead. In 2021 so far there have been only a handful of local reports of this common North American accipiter.

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