Cerro de la Muerte

Thursday, 2/24

The usual morning walk was superseded by a VERY early bus trip (Dago was not terribly pleased) to try one last time for the quetzals.  Since Z & I had seen them so well, we decided on a leisurely morning of enjoying the hummingbirds.  As the bus drove up for breakfast, we scoured the faces of the folks who tumbled off.  “Did you see one?”  A resounding “YES!!” came from the group.  Whew!  We might have chalked up more species for our trip list if we hadn’t spent so much time along the river.  But it sure felt good to know that the rest of the group had finally gotten to see this marvelous, iconic bird.

After breakfast, we boarded the bus and climbed out of the valley back up to the Inter-American Highway.  (To refresh your memory of the area, you can check the map here.)  We traveled a bit higher, to the Cerro de la Muerte radio towers road at Km 89.  (The photos on the left and below right are just 2 of the lovely views from the road.)  Just 2 target birds here:  Timberline Wren and Volcano Junco.  At the first stop, Roger could hear the wren not far off the road.  The wren was extraordinarily skulky and flitty.  Just as Roger would spot it and start to give directions, it’d dash off somewhere else.  I lucked into a decent glimpse when it moved briefly to a small branchless area in a bush.  It was a very quick look, but one that was good enough for identification purposes.  Roger continued persistently to direct people to the bird as it skittered around the low bushes in the area.  Eventually, either everyone had gotten a look or had given up.

We wandered a bit further up the road, enjoying the views and catching a good look at a Volcano Hummingbird.  They had been at Savegre too, but I hadn’t gotten a clear view—and wasn’t sure I could differentiate one from the similar Scintillant Hummingbird.  But on Cerro de la Muerte, the Volcano Hummingbird was the only choice.  An endemic species found only on the volcanoes of the Central Plateau and south through the Talamanca Mountains and on into western Panama, this bird displays different colors in different regions.  (Here in the Talamancas, the male sports a rosy gorget)  The female has white breast and speckled throat.    The photo above right is most likely of a male; the light doesn’t illuminate the gorget, but it is relatively dark.  (Click on any photo to see a larger view.)  The photo above left is a female; you can see the speckled throat and white breast.  Unlike most other hummingbirds, it often feeds through holes at the bases of flowers that have been pierced by Slaty Flowerpiercers.

All of a sudden, Roger zeroed in on a Volcano Junco, low in the bushes alongside the road.  Not a very remarkable-looking bird—it looked a lot like our local Dark-eyed Juncos.  One of Costa Rica’s most highly sought endemic birds, it resides only from Volcán Turrialba to Panama.  Its habitat is at or above treeline (about 10,000 feet) in shrubby páramo.  Like the U.S.’s Dark-eyed Junco, it has a similarly chunky body, pink bill, and flesh-colored legs.  Unlike Dark-eyed Juncos, though, it has yellow eyes surrounded by a black mask.  (You can’t see any of these field marks in the 2 far-from-stellar photos below.  Thank goodness we weren’t submitting them to a Rare Birds Committee for documentation.  But hey—we got photos!)  A hard-to-find bird, so that was fun.


We continued to climb along the Inter-American Highway and stopped at La Georgina—a restaurant/truck stop that featured lots of hummingbird feeders.  There, we were lucky enough to spot a Fiery-throated Hummingbird feeding along the bushes below the restaurant.  (“Flaming” species #3!)  What an amazingly beautiful bird!  (This lovely photo isn’t ours.  You can find a larger version of it (photographer—auf) at the Internet Bird Collection Web site; click here.)  Truly one of the most stunning hummingbirds in Costa Rica’s forested highlands.  Along with a dark green, a blue tail, and a deep blue crown, its throat is an intense iridescent red in the central portion surrounded by iridescent orange.  Unusual among hummingbirds, the sexes are identical.  Like the Volcano Hummingbird, it may use holes at the base of flowers with long corollas made by bumblebees or Slaty Flowerpiercers; at times, it may pierce the flower bases itself.

We also spotted a Large-footed Finch at the base of these bushes, spottable because of its green back.  Endemic in montane and páramo habitats from central Costa Rica to western Panama, it features a dark gray or black back, a chunky body, and a yellowish-olive belly.  (Photo on the right thanks to Wikimedia; photographer, Mike Baird.  Check out those eponymous super-feet!)  It’s easiest to spot by its feeding technique:  It forages on the ground in the manner of a towhee,   using double-footed forward and backward jumps to move leaf litter and other ground cover aside to find seeds and insects.

And those would be our last new species for the trip.  Time to head back to San José for our final evening of the trip.


13 Responses to Cerro de la Muerte

  1. Karen Platt says:

    I enjoyed your blog very, very much. I read it to help me decide whether or not to sign up for this trip. You should get a commission for my sign-up! Thanks very much.

  2. CHRIS MCFEE says:


  3. Connie G. says:

    I agree with Karen — your most excellent, detailed information answered just about any question I might have had — and I’ve had many. I was worried about the trip being too “touristy” or sedentary, but it seems just about the right balance between comfort and wilderness. I’m ready to sign up now!

    • Tina says:

      Thanks, Connie–I’m so glad you found it helpful! Definitely neither too touristy nor too sedentary. I think you’ll really enjoy it. Go for it & have fun !


  4. Connie G. says:

    Thanks, Tina for your quick reply. One more question — I love birds, and would certainly enjoy seeing some of the many exotic species you describe, but I’m really more interested in seeing the exotic plant life. I’m an artist, not a scientist, so I’m going primarily for the visuals. My thinking is that I might linger behind the more avid birders to gather materials — photos or leaf rubbings — to incorporate into my work when I get home. Do you think this tour would accommodate my personal interests as well?
    BTW — your blog is wondrously detailed — have you ever thought of making it into a book?

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Connie–

      On our trip, our guide was very much an all-around naturalist. He often stopped to talk with us about interesting insects, herptiles, flowers, trees, etc. He really felt that ALL of CR’s nature was to be enjoyed on our trip. I can’t speak for all CR guides; but from reading a number of other folks’ trip reports, it sounds like a lot of CR guides are similarly into all aspects of nature.

      Some birding groups can be weird and hyper-focused on birds, birds, birds. (Our group had one of those types, out of 14 of us.) But my guess is that Road Scholar groups would contain few of these folks (The crazed birders would be more likely to go on a more specialized trip.) Birders often walk very slowly and stop for long periods of time while trying to get everyone on a particular bird. So, as long as you were quiet and stayed away from the area where that bird was, you’d have plenty of time to gather mementos. No guarantees, of course. But as long as your guide knows what you’re up to (and why!) and you never lose total track of where the group is, I’d bet you’d be okay.

      I’m so glad you found the blog helpful. I doubt it’s publish-worthy, since it’s mostly about just one trip to only 5 of CR’s magnificent areas. But I really enjoy feedback from folks who found it useful–thanks!


  5. Connie G. says:

    Hi Tina — That’s great — I was hoping the trip would be like you describe it. I became a little wary when I posted a similar question on one of the other birding trip discussion groups, and someone responded that if I were not a serious birder I probably would not enjoy the trip! If the guides are as good as yours, I’m sure I’ll be happy. I just need someone to point me in the right direction, and I’m good to go.
    Thanks again for taking the time to reply. You’ve provided far more helpful, concise information than I’ve been able to glean from my stack of travel books.

  6. Carol says:

    This has been the greatest help in my decision to make this trip. I read every word and looked at every picture. You should publish it because I think it shows a wonderful picture of this adventure. I can’t thank you enough.
    I do have one question. The trip I am looking at is from Nov 7 thru Nov 17. Do you think there will be too much rain and spoil the whole trip?

  7. Anna Coor says:

    Tina, We have been signed up for this trip for almost a year, and really looking forward to it. But after reading your blog I can hardly wait!

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Anna–

      Glad the blog could get you super-psyched! It’s a really lovely sampler of Costa Rica’s best birding spots. Have a great time!


  8. Trina Anderson says:

    Well, this is the second time I’ve read your blog involving a trip that we have booked through RS. Though I didn’t read them prior to the booking, they have been a great help in preparing and anticipating the trip.
    Somehow I stumbled upon this one for Costa Rica, while the first one was found on RS’s web site after we had booked a trip to the Galapagos. We followed you by 2 years on each trip. Makes me wonder if we’ll find ourselves back in the Galapagos in 2015?

    • Tina says:

      Holy cow,Trina! What an amazing coincidence! You could do worse than the Galapagos in 2015. 😉 And I’m glad you’ve found both blogs helpful–thanks for letting me know.


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