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Published: January 26th 2019
We saw these everywhere: in the cloud forest, at the butterfly gardens, orchid gardens and also down on the coast in Manuel Antonio National Park.
We started our trip up in the mountains, in the cloud forest at Monteverde. I had heard I could see nine species of hummingbirds in the cloud forest, and that was enough for me. Mom has never objected to a birding trip. There are a couple different roads up to Monteverde, which I didn’t bother to research. I grew up driving old logging roads in Washington and Idaho. However, I will say that parts of the road from Rancho Grande, labeled 606 on the map, are pretty rough and have some steep drop offs. I wouldn’t recommend it for people not used to unpaved mountain roads. On the way back down, we took 605 through Sarmiento and it was lovely. Mostly paved and with fewer drop offs, it has beautiful views of the Gulf of Nicoya and the Nicoya Peninsula.
Our first full day up in the mountains we took our B&B’s recommendation to go to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. There are two other reserves, so tourists have plenty to choose from. We were promised a hummingbird garden and that made the choice easy. The place was beautiful. We saw six male quetzal and one female. We learned about
Mom and I had a fabulous time exploring all that Monteverde has to offer.
mixed flocks, which I hadn’t heard of before. I don’t think it’s common in North America. In mixed flocks in the cloud forest the hummingbird’s job is to point out snakes to the other birds. I learned that in a mixed flock you rarely notice the hummingbird but that if there’s a snake nearby the hummingbird will fly back and forth over it, vocalizing to warn the other birds. We also learned that there are not nine, but 25 different species of hummingbirds in Monteverde and 52 in the whole country. I bought a little booklet in the giftshop that lists 47 hummingbirds of Costa Rica. I won’t list all the ones we saw, but you can see my favorites in the photos. We also saw lots of different wrens in the mixed flocks, finches, red starts and greenlets. There were woodpeckers, black faced solitaires and bananaquit, which are very interesting, and I had never heard of before.
To tour the reserve, we hired a guide named Adrian, who was also recommended by our B&B. He has worked in that reserve for 26 years and it shows. He knew where to find everything from quetzal to pit vipers. He
This is one of the males we saw. If he had turned around you would see more of his blood red front.
was excellent at pointing out all of the flora in the cloud forest and was also an outstanding teacher. His knowledge was impressive, but I was more impressed by his skill at taking photos with a phone through his telescope. All the guides carried telescopes so the tourists could see up close whatever was in the top of the canopy. The quetzals were all high up, partly hidden behind layers and layers of branches and foliage. The telescope was much better than my camera at focusing past all of it. They’re beautiful birds but I really love them for the fuzzy mohawk that makes them look a little like a muppet.
The entrance fee is $22 USD, which I think was totally worth it. They will take cash or card USD or CRC. The entrance ticket lists two websites www.cct.or.ce
which are very similar, although the first is in Spanish with an option to switch to English and the second is in English. I would recommend getting a guide partly because they know where the birds and other animals are likely to be at any given time of day and because their telescopes make such a difference in how
These are the largest hummingbirds I saw, about 15 centimeters long. They love in the cloud forests and around the volcanoes of Costa Rica. This one is a male.
well you can see everything up in the canopy.
Back at our B&B we told the woman who works there that we were very happy with her recommendations and the guide she arranged for us. She explained that he was a friend of her father and that she had known him her whole life. That’s when I started to get more of a feel for the town of Santa Elena as a small place run by locals, even if the center of town seemed overrun with tourists. We stayed at Claro de Luna, which was a very short walk from the center of town. Our room was surrounded by forest on three sides and there weren’t any other rooms above or below. It felt a little like being in a treehouse. The room was small, but the view out the windows was beautiful and the bathroom was nice. Breakfast was very good, with fresh fruit and plenty to eat. The reason I chose the place was that in the reviews people raved about the gardens. One person said that even if you don’t stay there you should visit the gardens. It definitely is an extensive and beautiful property, but
Similar to the Violet Sabrewing, these hummingbirds live in the mountains and near the volcanoes. They grow to 9.5 centimeters and this one is also a male.
I thought it was the people that really made it special. They loved the animals that lived there and when they found out how much I love hummingbirds more than one showed me a hummingbird nest with a baby inside. Our second night there we were playing cards outside on the deck when the night guard came to tell us that there was a sloth in the parking lot. It was only thirty meters away, but it had climbed up in the trees by the time by the time we got there. The guard found it with a flashlight, a two toed sloth, Choloepus hoffmani. We stood out there for about half an hour, watching it eat leaves and climb around. The wind was strong and the sloth was moving fast from branch to branch. Eventually she climbed across a couple other tree tops and was gone into the forest. Take a look at their gardens at http://www.clarodelunahotel.com
The two other highlights in Monteverde were the orchid and butterfly gardens. We made the mistake of first going to the orchid garden in the evening. It was beautiful but Mom wanted to take photos of the orchids and the garden
Male Green-fronted Brilliant
The guide called it a Green-crown Brilliant, but my book calls it Green-fronted. My book also points out how many species' names have changed recently.
is in a little hollow that doesn’t get any evening sun. A tour is included in the entry fee so we stayed for the tour anyway – and went back the next day to get photos in the sun. This was another moment when I got a feel for the small town that Santa Elena really is. Our guide looked like he was in his 20s, spoke softly and knew a lot about orchids. He said that he had grown up there and that his father was a biologist at the orchid garden. He knew every plant and tree in the place. It’s not a very large garden, so that might not seem very remarkable. However, he knew all the orchids by local common names, most by their more generic common names and also by their Latin names. He also knew just about anything you could possibly ask him about the orchids. That was remarkable. He was more than patient with all the questions from our little group and his English was excellent. The garden is right in the center of Santa Elena, a block or two from every restaurant in town. Check it out at www.monteverdeorchidgarden.net
Female Green-fronted Brilliant and Coppery-headed Emerald
The smaller hummingbird on the left is the Coppery-headed Emerald male, a species endemic to Costa Rica. The larger one is a female Green-fronted Brilliant. I don't like taking photos with hummingbird feeders, but it's the best way to catch more than one species sitting next to each other.
garden was very different. Far enough out of town to make walking impractical, it was also much larger and our guide was not a local, but a Brit named Will. He said he was there on a six week internship before he had to go back to real life and get an adult job. I guessed he had just finished college. The tour is also included in the entry fee along with the offer to come back any time in the next week. The property was extensive with several large enclosures housing different species of butterflies. The tour starts off in a building with a large hutch of chrysalises and butterflies in the process of emerging. We got a general overview of insects and I got to hold a large stick insect, which decided to climb up my arm, tickle its way up my neck and settle on my hat. There were a few other bugs on offer, mostly beetles, including a cockroach. It was clear that the interns there really loved bugs, like really loved them. The butterflies were housed in enclosures that I wouldn’t really call buildings. They all have double doors so the butterflies don’t escape, but
Stripe-tailed hummingbird and Bananaquit
The Bananaquit is fascinating! A book I found at the butterfly garden states: Until recently, the Bananaquit belonged to the monotoysic family Coerebidae. Its taxonomic placement is now uncertain. This small bird is quite active and warbler like; it is closely related to the wood-warblers. Bananaquits however, build globular nests - quite unlike the warblers.
the walls are more like frames with netting on them than real walls. Each of the enclosures was full of butterflies and I could have spent hours in each one. Out in the gardens, between the enclosures, were more butterflies and caterpillars. We saw monarch caterpillars, which look exactly the ones in the US, although we were told that the local species was non-migratory. I also learned a lot about leaf-cutter ants, including that there are tiny leaf-cutter ants called minima that ride on the pieces of leaf to clean them before they’re brought in the nest. Since the leaves are for feeding the fungus that the ants eat, they have to make sure no pathogens get to the fungus. After the tour we grabbed a few bird and flower books from their extensive library and sat in rocking chairs on a deck, overlooking the ridges and valleys to the south. I would highly recommend it as a place to hang out if your feet are tired from all the tours. The gift shop is a nonprofit for local artists and we found a few things that were too beautiful to pass up. The website includes information about volunteering there
Violet Sabrewing and Green Violet-earwww.monteverdebutterflygarden.com
He's a little harder to see, but the Violet Sabrewing is much larger than the Green Violet-ear. Both live predominantly in mountains and near volcanoes, but the Sabrewing is 15 centimeters and the Violet-ear is only 10 centimeters.
We stumbled on another little butterfly garden while looking for a nice place for lunch. At the Monteverde Lodge we had a good lunch overlooking gardens, with views all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. After lunch we let ourselves into the indoor glass butterfly garden. With the place to ourselves and in a smaller space than the enclosures at the real butterfly garden, we got lots of great photos of blue morphos up close. You can see the lodge and gardens here http://monteverdelodge.com/gallery/gallery-lodge-and-grounds.html
It was beautiful up in the cloud forest and I was ecstatic about all of the hummingbirds. Mom loved the orchids even more and we both loved the butterfly garden. My only regret is that I wish we had done the butterfly garden the first day, so we would have had more time to go back. As it was, nobody at the orchid garden minded when we went back the next day to get photos with better light. The town is cute and, despite the hotels and the restaurants that all catered to tourists, Santa Elena hasn’t completely lost the small town feel. I would say that’s thanks to the younger generation
Female Magenta-throated Woodstar
This species is endemic to Costa Rica. They're tiny, growing to only 7.5 centimeters and live in the mountains and near the volcanoes. Of course, only the males have the magenta throats.
of locals who are continuing their family businesses rather than moving away to the city. As beautiful as the cloud forest is, it’s chilly at night and we were there during a week with a lot of strong wind. I guess the upside of wearing long pants and having windy evenings is that there was no chance we could get any mosquito bites. That changed when we headed down to the coast to see Manuel Antonio National Park.
There are more photos below, so scroll down.
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