Monteverde’s Exceptional Birding

By Richard Garrigues   Photo by Dale Morris

Brief

Here, you can read about Monteverde's fame as a birding destination. Due to six distinct life zones in a very small geographic region, the greater Monteverde area has a huge biodiversity, which includes around 350 species of birds.

Monteverde's fame as a birding destination predates Costa Rica’s ecotourism boom of the last decade. Even as the rest of the world was discovering Costa Rica, birders were already flocking to this verdant mountain ridge in search of Resplendent Quetzals and Three-wattled Bellbirds the former generally regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful birds, the latter a very striking and vociferous member of the Cotinga family. Neither of these birds is necessarily easy to see, but then, that’s all part of the challenge. In fact, there are times of the year when neither species is even present in the Monteverde area!

To further Monteverde’s reputation, the annual Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, has consistently produced some of the highest species tallies in the hemisphere for the past several years. However, credit for such an enviable accomplishment is due to the regional topography and the efforts of Alexander Villegas at organizing some 50 birders to cover the circular area, with a diameter of 15 miles (about 24 kilometers), rather than the exceptional birding potential of the most commonly visited portions of Monteverde. While the count has typically produced more than 350 species in 24 hours, the average birder who visits Monteverde would do well to find 80 species in twice that amount of time.

The huge biodiversity of the greater Monteverde area is due to the presence of six distinct life zones in a very small geographic region. Traveling up the dirt road from the Pan-American Highway you pass through the Tropical Moist Forest life zone (although “forest” is a euphemism, since this lower portion is now mostly pasture). This seasonally dry climatic region extends to well above the village of Guacimal, the halfway point in the journey to Monteverde and the southwestern end of the Christmas count circle. Here you can encounter species typical of the Guanacaste dry forest avifauna such as White- throated Magpie-Jays, Rufous-naped Wrens, Orange-fronted Parakeets and Lesser Ground-Cuckoos.

Upon nearing the town of Santa Elena, you enter Premontane Wet Forest habitat (Feel that cooler air?). Essentially all of Monteverde’s hotels are located in this life zone and birding around the grounds might turn up a Blue-crowned Motmot, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Yellow-throated Brush-Finch or Emerald Toucanet.

At the end of the long road is the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the start of the Lower Montane Wet Forest. This is the area that most people think of at the mention of “Monteverde.” The frequent mists that bathe the forests along the Pacific side of the ridge are what give rise to the term “cloud forest” and also provide sufficient humidity for the luxuriant growth of mosses, ferns, orchids and other epiphytes that festoon the trunks and branches of most of the trees. The epiphytic loads become continually more impressive as you approach the Continental Divide and the narrow strip of Lower Montane Rain Forest habitat. As the term implies (rain vs. just wet), it is even wetter here than it is a kilometer and a half back at the parking area. Most visitors use the trail system that traverses these two life zones.

The three most common species throughout this sector are the Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Common Bush-Tanager and Three-striped Warbler. The latter two often comprise the bulk of the activity in mixed species foraging flocks. The trick is to sort through them to find the odd Spotted Barbtail, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Ruddy Treerunner, Lineated Foliage-gleaner or other accompanying species. The Slate-throated Redstart is another common and obvious bird found in the lower part of the reserve. It tends to be replaced by the dapper Collared Redstart nearer the divide, though the two can occur together. Several species found predominantly in the Lower Montane Rain Forest are the Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (replacing the Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush so commonly heard ­ if not seen ­ throughout the third zone), Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher and the rare Peg-billed Finch.

Few visitors make any serious attempt to hike beyond the Continental Divide, but if you were to descend the trail into the Peñas Blancas Valley you would quickly find yourself in the Premontane Rain Forest life zone and eventually would reach Tropical Wet Forest after dropping below an elevation of about 1,100 meters (3,609 feet). These Caribbean- slope rain forests hold the greatest variety of birds of any of the aforementioned areas and are a primary reason why the CBC results are so impressive. In addition to numerous common species, this area is where you might get lucky enough to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Ornate Hawk-Eagle or the very rare Keel-billed Motmot.

Ironically, the first half of the tourism high season (mid-December through February) coincides with some of the worst weather for birdwatching in Monteverde, where residents know these months as the windy or misty season. The trade winds typically come gusting up over the ridge from the Caribbean side of the divide (hold on to your hat when visiting the overlook!) and sweep down the Pacific-facing hillsides with such branch-shaking force it often seems as if the birds must simply be hanging on for dear life. Not exactly great viewing conditions, believe me; but if it weren’t for this weather pattern, the wind-driven mists would not exist and the cloud forest with its epiphytes, quetzals and multitudinous other creatures might not exist either.

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