Legends live in clouds

2008 April 15
by David J. Ringer

MORAVIA, COSTA RICA — You are in a place so still that a falling leaf makes you jump, so tranquil that a buzzing insect makes you flinch. You are breathing off bits of a cloud, for it is all around you. You begin to wonder whether the thunder really is coming from the sky you cannot see or instead from an invisible mountain across the valley, bidding goodnight to its neighbor. And there is birdsong, always there is birdsong, ethereal, strident, modest, wild.

Costa Rica. At last I had escaped the pressures and demands of travel for a private retreat in the Talamanca Cordillera.


On the first morning, I awoke to this — the Resplendent Quetzal — shimmering blue-green in the cool light of dawn. What a bird, easily among the most spectacular in all the world. It has lived in legend for centuries, since at least the time of the Aztecs. Absolutely magnificent.

I stayed at Savegre Mountain Hotel, which is very nice and recommended. They have a system of trails both up the mountain and down the valley, offering up-close access to excellent birds. I couldn’t afford both lodging AND food, but it turns out that electric coffee pots do cook ramen noodles pretty well. I hear their restaurant is good though, so try it if you can. You can explore on your own, as I did, or hire birding guides. Guides can probably help (or at least improve chances) with tough species that I missed, and they say that a guide is required if you want to ascend Cerro de la Muerte (Hill of Death) for the high elevation páramo species. I wasn’t able to afford that either, unfortunately.

I had a respectable 64 species during my three-day stay. This is high-elevation birding, so the diversity is not like the lowlands, but it’s still quite good. Even more important, huge numbers of the species in these mountains are endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. Over a third of the 64 species I saw are restricted to this very small region of the world. Here’s a complete trip list: Savegre Mountain Lodge 2008. Now for more photos:


The key to finding many of the passerine species is watching and listening for mixed flocks foraging in the vegetation. The flocks are often composed primarily of Yellow-thighed Finches (shown here) and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, or just a couple of hundred feet lower down the valley, the similar Common Bush Tanager. Mixed in with these species are smaller numbers of warblers, wrens, tanagers, woodcreepers, and funariids.

Funariids (ovenbirds) and woodcreepers are members of the huge Neotropical assemblage of suboscine passerines. Woodcreepers look and behave rather like woodpeckers, even supporting themselves with their tails as they hitch up trunks and limbs, poking around in search of insects. Most ovenbirds in Costa Rica’s mountains are smaller but behave in similar ways, much like nuthatches and small woodpeckers, though members of the family further south are quite different. They are mostly patterened with rusty, buffy, brown, and white shades, not terribly difficult to identify but demanding attention to detail and observation of habits. Fun.

But there are colorful birds too — the brilliant tanagers, euphonias, and chlorophonias. I exclaimed out loud when I first glimpsed a lovely green, yellow, and blue Golden-browed Chlorophonia. And the Collared Whitestarts flit about looking for all the world like tiny clowns.


Then there are the hummingbirds. Magnificent Hummingbirds are large and often look mostly black. But when the males turn toward you, they almost explode with colorful purple and green-blue hues. Little wonder that their specific epithet, fulgens, comes from a Latin word meaning “to flash” or “to shine.”


Green Violetears are abundant around the headquarters sugar water feeders. During confrontations, they can flare those purple face patches out sideways like ears!


At three inches long including the bill, Volcano Hummingbirds are the tiniest bird I’ve ever seen. They’re hardly bigger than a good-sized bumblebee. There are three races in Costa Rica; the one here has a very subdued greenish-gray gorget, as seen in the photo.


Torrent Tyrannulets live along the fast-moving mountain rivers, fluttering moth-like over the water in pursuit of small insects. They are similar in coloration and ecology to the Torrent Flyrobins I observed in Papua New Guinea. I supposed the coloration is advantageous against the rippling water.


Moisture abounds in the cloud forest, and virtually every surface is covered with epiphytic mosses, lichens, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and liverworts. Ochraceous Wrens, Buffy Tuftedcheeks, and many other species probe the vegetation in search of prey. It’s a soft, soggy, and intricate world.


Copious amounts of water allow moisture-loving plants like this filmy fern to thrive.


And there are beautiful flowers, like this begonia, that we may recognize from our gardens. But this is their home, where they flourish and thrive.


Orchids seem to grow fairly high up as epiphytes on limbs and trunks. I saw three or four species in bloom, but they were a bit difficult to photograph.


Are you still reading? Good. I could keep going and going, but I think I’d better point you off to my photo gallery if you’re still hungry for more. I’ve posted almost 90 photos — there are more quetzals, more hummingbirds, other birds, botanical wonders from lichens to tree ferns to heliconias, scenic shots, and even a fish. So have a look, enjoy, and marvel: Savegre Mountain Lodge photos.

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7 Responses
  1. April 15, 2008

    Oh man, you’re the second person to write about this place in the last week. I loved my stay there. Plus, they had heaters in the room which let me dry my clothes which had been wet for days (it was November). I saw some amazing birds there and we did get to go to Cerro de la Muerte which was pretty wild. And for the record, the restaurant is pretty good. I think they have a trout farm on site.

  2. April 16, 2008

    Wow, what an amazing trip, David. Your pictures are outstanding, especially those hummingbird shots. Glad you had a chance to finally indulge yourself on this odyssey of yours!

  3. April 18, 2008

    Excellent photosite, wonderful pictures and text!

  4. April 20, 2008

    Amazing photos. It sounds like to had an awesome trip! We were in Costa Rica in October. A truly amazing place for birdin. My story and photos: http://wolf21m.blogspot.com/2007/10/costa-rica-birdwatching.html

  5. May 29, 2008

    Breathtaking beauty.
    Your blog is beautiful! please go on with your trip, I am waiting for you next fantastic bunch of pictures

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