Into the Clouds

It was warm and steamy for our option morning bird walk, where we saw a lot of different things including a double-toothed hawk that posed nicely in the dim light, a yellow-bellied elaenia perched on some wires, then a bright-rumped attila flitting in the foliage. There was a bit of a lull, then we started seeing a number of warblers and flycatchers, a yellow female summer tanager, and a brown hermit (a tiny dull-colored hummingbird). A flock of orange-chinned parakeets flew noisily overhead. A few scarlet-rumped caciques hung out for a bit, and we watched as one male offered nesting materials to a female. As we walked back the short distance to the hotel a couple of black-mandibled toucans flew into a tree above us.

Double-toothed hawk (L), bright-rumped attila (LC), scarlet-rumped cacique (RC) and orange-chinned parakeets in flight (R).

Double-toothed hawk (L), bright-rumped attila (LC), scarlet-rumped cacique (RC) and orange-chinned parakeets in flight (R).

On our day-long drive to our next accommodations, we stopped briefly in San Isidro (population about 60,000) to get out and wander around the central plaza with its twin-towered modern church and a monument to the farmers (clay-red statue of a man driving oxen and a woman following behind with a plow).

Driving through San Isidro (L), the monument to farmers (LC), the Catholic church (RC), and shave ice vendor (R).

Driving through San Isidro (L), the monument to farmers (LC), the Catholic church (RC), and shave ice vendor (R).

There were many different ornamental plants around the square where locals sat on the low concrete benches. There were a couple of tropical mockingbirds hopping around on the grass, a woman with a portable stand selling shave ice, people selling lottery tickets, and lots of pedestrians in this non-tourist town – so we got to see a slice of the real Costa Rica.

The central square (L), a white powderpuff flower (LC), three Ixora plants planted very close together to create the appearance of a multicolored shrub (RC), and tropical mockingbird (R).

The central square (L), a white powderpuff flower (LC), three Ixora plants planted very close together to create the appearance of a multicolored shrub (RC), and tropical mockingbird (R).

Today we travelled from the ocean into the highest mountain range in the country. As we gradually ascended the vegetation changed, so we were seeing a whole new palette of plants that we drove past. We were leaving many of the coastal plants behind and started seeing a few Bocconia shrubs with their large, oak-like leaves and airy pendant inflorescences, and the orange flowers of the small native terrestrial orchid Epidendrum radicans on the roadcuts, lots of tall yellow daisies, and patches of low purple Ageratum. Escaped red dracaenas poked up here and there, and heavy blue hydrangea flowers bloomed in the landscapes around many houses. Lichens and bromeliads festooned branches of many of the tall trees. We passed some alder trees (Alnus acuminata) with their smooth, greyish bark.

Driving past the ocean (L), into the mountains (LC), tall yellow daisies along roadside (C) and closeup (RC), and purple ageratum (R).

Driving past the ocean (L), into the mountains (LC), tall yellow daisies along roadside (C) and closeup (RC), and purple ageratum (R).

After lunch we started seeing some of the first huge-leaved Gunnera talamancensis – an indicator of cloud forest, the purple flowered Dahlia imperialis, and the pendant clusters of bright red tubular flowers of a vining Bomarea hanging down here and there. Soon we were driving though misty patches of clouds. Bocconia became more abundant, and there was more of the small pink-flowered shrub Monocahetum amabile, still lots of dahlias in both purple and white, and the tall herbaceous Wigandia urens with its large, paddle-shaped leaves and light purple flowers and some native Fuchsia paniculata. All of a sudden we started seeing some of the endemic wild bamboo (Chusquea longifolia) that would become one of the dominant parts of the flora higher up. Driving through a cloud, our views were obscured by the white mist, but we could still appreciate the colorful blooming plants all along the roadsides. Tree ferns started to become more numerous. When we stopped for a bathroom break at a local restaurant, we got to see seven different species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders there.

Wigandia urens on roadside (L), flowers of Monocahetum amabile (LC), hummingbird feeding at Fuchsia paniculata (RC), and L-R magnificent hummingbird, scintillant hummingbird, and volcano hummingbird at feeder (R).

Wigandia urens on roadside (L), flowers of Monocahetum amabile (LC), hummingbird feeding at Fuchsia paniculata (RC), and L-R magnificent hummingbird, scintillant hummingbird, and volcano hummingbird at feeder (R).

We continued on, going higher into the paramo ecosystem dominated by dwarf bamboo (Chusquea subtessellata) and the endemic Escallonia shrubs whose branches grow in layers. We pulled off the main road to wind up a dirt road toward the communication towers on this highest point of the Cerro de la Muerte. It was misty and windy, but bright, when we climbed out to look at the unique low and stunted vegetation there. It was chilly and harder to breathe at close to 10,000 feet. We took lots of photos and picked a few specimens of things we found interesting to try to identify using guide Margherita’s ID book later that evening at Trogon Lodge.

Paramo habitat in the clouds (L), dwarf bamboo, Chusquea subtessellata (LC), mixture of small, low paramo plants including the silvery Acaena cylindrostachya (RC), and Lycopodium (R).

Paramo habitat in the clouds (L), dwarf bamboo, Chusquea subtessellata (LC), mixture of small, low paramo plants including the silvery Acaena cylindrostachya (RC), and Lycopodium (R).

The descent into Trogon Lodge is as memorable as the place itself, following a steep, narrow dirt road through the forest on the edge of the mountain, with lots of hairpin turns and sharp drop-offs below the road. As we left the Pan American Highway to head down into the Savegre area, we learned about the history of this area that developed into a destination for tourists interested in seeing resplendent quetzals and other birds of the highlands and the cloud forest. We passed pastures filled with native oaks, escallonias, and many trees in the Laureaceae family, the distant slopes completely covered with native vegetation. As we descended we saw more of the wild bamboo and Bocconia again on the edges of the forest of oak, alder and many other types of trees covered with moss, lichens and bromeliads. Finally, with 1km to go, we could see the red and green roofs of the Lodge and its trout pond way down below us, and soon turned off the road to enter the property’s long driveway that follows along the small river tumbling down over the rocks. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with all sorts of ornamental plants from around the world, and just a few native species, but nearly all of them provide nectar for the numerous species of hummingbirds that reside here.

The small river near Trogon Lodge (L) and scenes of the landscaped area at Trogon Lodge (LC-R).

The small river near Trogon Lodge (L) and scenes of the landscaped area at Trogon Lodge (LC-R).

Exotic landscape plants at Trogon Lodge: red hot poker (Kniphofia) and calla lily (Zantedeschia) from South Africa (L), Echeveria, in bloom, from Mexico (LC), Mexican sage, Salvia leucantha, from Mexico (C), Brugmansia sanguinea, native to the Andes from Columbia to northern Chile (RC), and Ethiopian Banana, Ensete ventricosum (R).

Exotic landscape plants at Trogon Lodge: red hot poker (Kniphofia) and calla lily (Zantedeschia) from South Africa (L), Echeveria, in bloom, from Mexico (LC), Mexican sage, Salvia leucantha, from Mexico (C), Brugmansia sanguinea, native to the Andes from Columbia to northern Chile (RC), and Ethiopian Banana, Ensete ventricosum (R).