At 5.30am on March 10th we pulled out of Tapanti back thro' the coffee plantations and Cartago, then followed the Pan American Highway to the highlands of the Cerro de la Muerte - a very hairpinny tarmaced road all the way up the mountain of death, but slow moving Mack trucks and subsided edges, plus frequent dense mist made the drive a demanding one for Tropical.
They like their Mack trucks in Costa Rica.
God knows why.
We got to the La Georgina cafe up at the top for 8am - the air was cold at 11,400ft, but the UV from the sun was wicked.
Luckily you can feast on a great brekky there and enjoy the scores of hummers that come into the many feeders suspended inches from the windows - Magnificent Hummer, Fiery Throated, Volcano, Green Violet Ear - all inches away.
Once we realised the windows slid open, we were in digiscoping heaven, and the gardens were just as good - Large Footed Finch (Neill's great shot), tiny Volcano Hummers, Fiery Throated (Trops bagged that one), Sooty Robins, Black Capped Flycatcher, Yellow Thighed Finch and Peg Billed FInch - man oh man, stunning highland species!
Rufous Collared Sparrows hopped into the restaurant to pick scraps, but we walked down through the gardens and gave the steep Sendero Los Quetzales trail a bash. Initially it seemed quiet, until we hit a feeding flock with stunning Black Cheeked Warblers, Ruddy Treerunners, Sooty Capped Bush Tanagers and even a groovy Buffy Tuftedcheek - mad name, mad bird.
We heard Quetzal, but couldn't see it as the sun streamed through the canopy, but Black Billed Nightingale Thrushes were more obliging, as were Black Throated Green Warblers.
From there, it was short drive back west to the track that leads up to the radio towers at 3,450m - by 11.20am, we were in the weird, mist shrouded habitat known as paramo.
Tropical moorland no less, with incredible flowers and mosses.
The air was pretty thin up there, and breathing was kinda laboured.
It was strange being hot and cold at the same time - the crisp mountain air and damp mist frequently disappeared for the brutal sun to burst through, but it didn't bother the birds, which although thin on the ground, were all top drawer stuff - Volcano Hummers, Volcano Junco, Timberline Wrens, White Collared Swift, hell, even a migrating Red Tailed Hawk cruised by.
I liked the juncos - that pale eye gave 'em a real deranged look, and they pretty much ignored you as they went about their business in their own paramo world.
After our visit to the top of this part of Central America, we took to the road again, heading down a few thousand feet, our progress habitually slowed by monster Mack trucks, their air brakes growling all the way down the mountain.
A quick look at the Providencia Road (it even rained) was a bit disappointing, but it was the quiet time of the day, and although we heard Zeledonia, there was no way one of those critters was gonna show in a rainstorm.
More Timberline Wrens, but the rain forced us back downhill and we took the track to Copey de Dota, where we were staying at the superb El Toucanet Lodge for the next two nights.
Mountain Elaenia, Acorn Woodpeckers and a nasty Traill's Flycatcher (know your limitations puny human) showed on the way through hillsides cleared of forest as we neared our destination.
We necked a few beers (how did they find their way into the boot of the 4x4????) on the balcony of our cabin as the mist spilled down over the hills above and Slate Coloured Redstarts fed and sang in the trees. Night falls early there, but Dusky NIghtjar and Mottled Owl were calling away.
An excellent meal courtesy of owner Gary and his family in front of a roaring fire was just what we needed and we hit the hay ready for the next morning.
Gary is a cracking fella - very laid-back (West Coast American dontcha know), and a very good birder.
He took us out for a walk the next morning, in a bid to score a Resplendent Quetzal, but we got so much more as we walked the stony track up into the hills outside El Toucanet.
Yellow Winged Vireo, Flame Coloured Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Acorn Woodpecker, Brown Capped Vireo, Barred Becard - what a local patch!
The light was still very poor as we walked into the denser trees of the remaining forest above Copey de Dota, when Gary calmly pointed out a black, motionless lump on the wires above us - a female Resplendent Quetzal!
Although pleased to see one, we were all silently thinking the same thing....where's the male????....when 30 ft away the big boy himself melted out of the foliage - stunning, too close to digiscope all the bird, too dark to get great shots, too wonderful for words....here's a selection of pix that Trops and I managed.
For such an astonishing bird, it blended into the leaves and branches remarkably well, even taking the poor light into consideration, if you don't believe me, here's a point and press shot of the male and his great big wavy tail.
Crap shot I know, but can you make him out?
With the quetzal pressure off (they are tricky this year, as the wild avocado crop that they adore has been poor, so the birds are pretty mobile - or was that just good business hype talk from Gary? Somehow I doubt it), we birded our way back to breakfast with Gary, and the birds kept coming - Black Cheeked, Rufous Capped and most wonderfully our first Flame Throated Warbler feeding high in the canopy above us.
Many thanks to Neill for this great shot - one of the birds I really wanted to see in CR, and there it was feeding above our heads.
Emerald Toucanets - big, green and crazy (see pic at top of entry) were great to watch after we missed 'em in Mexico last year, lovely Collared Redstarts (amigo del hombre) flitted about feet from us and all was well with the world.
Breakfast wasn't bad at El Toucanet either - fresh fruit, rice, beans and eggs, brilliant kickass coffee and all the while hummingbirds buzzing around us as they zipped in and out of Gary's feeders.
Violet Sabrewings, Scintillant, Green Violet Ear, Stripe Tailed, Rufous Tailed, Magnificent Hummers, breathtaking Magenta Throated Woodstars - look at Trops' pic of that one, they're like brilliant little helicopters!
Exquisite _ I could have sat there all day, but there was birding to be done, and by 10.45am we were driving back up the steep track into the cloud forests and towards Providencia, one of the remotest villages going, 20 clicks away.
Very steep, but good birding all the way - more Acorn Woodpeckers, Sulphur Winged Parakeets, Western Tanager, even an American Painted Lady Butterfly.
Trops lost his camera up here (don't ask), and it was given up for dead until I found he'd stuffed it in the back of my "mulepak" scope carrier on our return to the UK
The hairpin dirt track led up vertiginous slopes until we were back in mist shrouded cloud forest, festooned with Spanish Moss. Magnificent hill country.
Feeding flocks were few and far between, but very good when you found 'em - Flame Throated Warbler, Collared Redstart, Barred Becard, Stripe Headed Warbler, White Throated Mountain Gem, Yellow Winged Vireo, Mountain Robin, Yellow Rumped (Myrtle) Warbler - all top drawer stuff.
The Black Capped and Tufted Flycatchers were particularly cool, as they were the only birds that sat still long enough for me to digiscope!
We dropped into the tiny village of Providencia - neat and friendly, but no bar in sight, so we pushed on, pausing to admire a fine American Dipper on the stream that ran through the middle of the village.
Hit the Pan American HIghway again just after 3pm and headed back to El Toucanet for top drawer garden birding, beers and baked trout.
I gotta say I can heartily recommend El Toucanet as a place to stay for anyone visiting Costa Rica - lovely place, lovely people, lovely food.
Thanks a million Gary and co!
Lucky, lucky, lucky.
A quick pre-brekky walk on the morning of March 12th gave us more great birds - including a fine Swainson's Hawk, and on the way out of Copey towards Monteverde, a Grey Hawk too.
Having survived, indeed thrived on the Mountain of Death, it was time to move on.
One last thing before the Cerro De La Muerte list - in the extremely unlikely event that anyone from I.C.E., the phone and energy company in Costa Rica, is reading this blog - sod off with your masts and aerials in the Talamancan Cordillera.
No one living there wants 'em, and the reason folk come to Costa Rica is to enjoy the amazing eco-system, not look at aerials/masts and rides hacked through the trees.
It does no one any harm to miss a phone signal for a day or two.
CERRO DE LA MUERTE LIST
Magnificent Hummingbird, Fiery Throated Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, Large Footed Finch, Sooty Robin, Black Capped Flycatcher, Peg BIlled Finch, Yellow Thighed Finch, Black Billed Nightingale Thrush, Rufous Collared Sparrow, Black Cheeked Warbler, Ruddy Treerunner, Sooty Capped Bush Tanager, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black Throated Green Warbler, Turkey Vulture, Volcano Junco, White Collared Swift, Red Tailed Hawk, Timberline Wren, Mountain Elaenia, Traill's Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Black Vulture, Blue and White Swallow, Acorn Woodpecker, Slate Coloured Redstart , Wilson's Warbler, Cattle Egret, Yellow Winged Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Flame Coloured Tanager, Scintillant Hummingbird, Rufous Tailed Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Magenta Throated Woodstar, Indigo Bunting, Blue Crowned Motmot, Band Tailed Pigeon, Silver Throated Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Red Faced Spinetail, Brown Capped Vireo, Clay Coloured Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Grey Breasted Woodwren, Yellowish Flycatcher, Common Bush Tanager, Resplendant Quetzal, Collared Trogon, Spot Crwoned Woodcreeper, Barred Becard, Rufous Capped Warbler, Ochraceous Wren, Sppotted Barbtail, Flame Throated Warbler, Tufted Flycatcher, Dark Peewee, Emerald Toucanet, Ruddy Pigeon, Stripe Tailed Hummingbird, Sulphur Winged Parakeet, Western Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Three Striped Warbler, White Throated Mountain Gem, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Yellow Faced Grassquit, American Dipper, Mountain Robin, Streak Headed Woodcreeper, Ruddy Capped Nightingale Thrush, White Naped Brushfinch, Great White Egret, Blue Grey Tanager, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Swainson's Hawk, Green Crowned Brilliant, Grey Hawk, Great Tailed Grackle.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...