Natural History of the Talamanca Mountain Range
Over 60 million years ago when Costa Rica didn't even exist, the North American continent would extend down to where currently we
find Nicaragua which was then a tropical peninsula. 50 million years ago an intense process of volcanism and tectonic lifts started forming
islands between North America and South America. From 5 to 3 million years ago a complete isthmus had been formed, making possible the colonization
of species from continental land onto these islands. One of the biggest islands was the current Talamanca Mountain Range, which extends Southeast
into Western Panama. The highest peak of Costa Rica, Mount Chirripo, rises to 3,820 meters / 12,532 feet and is found in this mountain range overlooking
the Valley of El General. As the best suitable place for colonizing bird life, Talamanca ended up being a paradise for the generation of new species.
Also, as the mountain range/island gained elevation, new species evolved within this territory thanks to the well defined continental divide which isolated
the Caribbean and Pacific slopes.
The most dominant habitat found in Talamanca is the Tropical Cloud Forest, with about 74% of the trees being oaks,
this forest is a massive garden with trees serving as nurseries, the branches and trunks of most trees are full with bromeliads,
orchids, mosses, ferns, Ericacea (very liked by hummingbirds) and Gesneraceae (gold fish plant). All this epiphytic and parasitic
growth is stimulated by the constant clouds through daylight hours which create a constant mist that triggers the diverse forest
structures and functions. The understory in the Cloud Forest grows from 1 to 6 meters tall and it is dominated in most cases by bamboo
species of the genus Chusquea such longifolia, tomentosa,and talamancensis. Dwarf palms, tree ferns, and cyclanths are also dominant.
Shrubs are also found here with members from the Asteraceae, Ericaceae, Melastomataceae, Onagraceae, Rosaceae, Rubiaceae, and Solanaceae.
Clusiaceae species occur as shrubs or small trees.
The upper canopy is mostly dominated by oak trees of the genus Quercus, White Oaks and Black Oaks are massive, with
some reaching 40 meters in height. Other trees include the Lauraceae family which are known as wild avocados, these are the main source
of food for Resplendent Quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno), and visited too by Emerald Toucanets
(Aulacorhynchus prasinus) and Black Guans (Chamaepetes unicolor).
The average annual temperature in this high elevation forest range from 8 Celsius at its highest elevations (3,300 m / 10,827 feet)
to about 17 Celsius at it is lower elevations (2,000 m / 6,562 feet). The most drastic temperature variations occur in the driest months
from December to April where temperatures can drop below freezing. Annual rainfall ranges from 2,000 to 3,500 millimeters. Just above the
Tropical Cloud Forest, the Talamanca Mountain Range exposes another fantastic type of habitat; The Sub-Alpine Tropical Rain Páramo,
with elevations reaching 3,491 m ( 11,453 feet ), mostly dominated by a short stiffed bamboo of the genus Chusquea and numerous grasses,
as well as representatives of the families Ericaceae, Asteraceae (asters), Apiaceae, Rosaceae, Campanulaceae (bell flowers), Melastomataceae,
Bromeliaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Pteridaceae (ferns), and colorful beautiful looking mosses, lichens, and club mosses.
Since the Páramo is a tropical ecosystem of the high mountains, it is characterized by certain physical, chemical, and climatic
aspects that influence the biology of all the organisms that live in it. The plant life of these mountains adapt to high elevation air with
less density of oxygen and carbon dioxide, low temperatures and frost, high ultraviolet radiation, quick changes of temperature,
and the dehydrating effects of the wind, among some other factors. Generally speaking, the páramos present a humid and cold climate,
with sudden changes in weather and great daily temperature fluctuations which can go from temperatures below 0 Celsius (freezing)
to over 25 Celsius, producing many times a daily cycle of freezing and unfreezing. Some animal species, apart from birds, found
in the Páramo are the Green Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis), Highland Alligator Lizard (Mesaspis monticola),
Coyote (Canis latrans), Puma (Puma concolor), Dice’s Rabbit (Silvilagus dicei), Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii),
Red-brocket Deer (Mazama americana), Ring-tailed Cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti)
SAN GERADO DE DOTA
In the 1970s a couple of botanists from Harvard University who were studying micro-orchids finalized their research in the San Gerardo de Dota area,
locations that had been recently pioneered in (1954). In their scientific publication the botanists included a note mentioning how incredibly abundant
the Quetzal was in this valley. This comment triggered the visit of early birdwatchers who started coming to this area since the 70s to look for the
elusive Resplendent Quetzal. Aside from this magnificent bird, the presence of regional endemic species, which evolved in the highest mountains of
Costa Rica and Western Panama, make this location a perfect destination for birdwatchers. Even non-birders will appreciate looking at the fantastic
avifauna of the area and will be thrilled with the stunning views of the Resplendent Quetzal, over 200 species have been recorded in San Gerardo de
Dota-Cerro de la Muerte’s Tropical Cloud Forest and Sub-Alpine Rain Páramo.
Places to stay in San Gerardo de Dota
Good places to stay are the famous Savegre Mountain Lodge and Los Sueños del Bosque, both own by members of the Chacón Zúñiga Family, pioneers of this valley.
Both properties have the most strategic location for birding San Gerardo de Dota. Another good option is Dantica Lodge
, for which you definitely need a vehicle
to drop into the valley and explore the trails down at Savegre Mountain Lodge and Los Sueños del Bosque
, however it is a nice property and offers good birding
opportunities and some trails as well (some a little steep). Trogon Lodge
is another great hotel, with exquisite gardens and some good trails (some a little steep).
All of these lodges offer wonderful rooms with hot water and heaters.
Some more modest options are also available in San Gerardo de Dota, one of them is Miriam’s Quetzals and Cafeteria
, which offers fantastic
traditional food and good bird feeders, and a varierty of rustic cabins in the upper portion of the valley, if you want to save a bit of money in lodging,
enjoy a Costa Rican atmosphere, and good traditional food, this is a good option.
Places to stay near the Panamerican Highway
Outside of the Valley, on Kilometer 70 from San José, you find Paraíso del Quetzal Lodge
, a famous lodge offering a variety of cabins,
some rustic and some with a few more amenities, typically cooler than the other lodges, offers hot water, coffee maker, and heaters.
The hummingbird feeders here are fantastic, with the best
looks and photo set up in the area for Fiery-throated Hummingbird, an excellent location for watching the Resplendent Quetzal.
Providencia de Dota - NEW DESTINATION!
If you want to experience the tranquil Costa Rican countryside atmosphere and the relaxation of birding the Cloud Forest,
in combination with middle elevation habitats and beautiful clean rivers, and still have access to the Sub-Alpine Tropical Rain Páramo,
perhaps you want to consider staying in Providencia de Dota. Located in the next valley West from San Gerardo de Dota,
really off the beaten birding track, where Tropical Feathers has been the first birding outfitter in exploring this fanstastic corner of paradise.
Two roads lead into this picturesque valley, one from the Village of Copey, and one from Ojo de Agua accessing from the Panamerican Highway and
down through Los Quetzales National Park. Here you can stay at Enrique and Ana’s Home, a small family style lodge and farming operation nestled
into one of the best coffee regions in the country. This rustic and charming lodge offers small warm rooms with shared bath or one cabin with private bath,
hot water, excellent traditional food, freshly roasted and ground coffee (you could grind your own coffee the old fashion way), and fantastic bird feeders with
frequent visits of Red-headed Barbet, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Silver-throated Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, Acorn Woodpecker.
The hummingbird feeders and gardens attract Violet Sabrewing, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar,
Green-crowned Brilliant, Scintillant Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy.
The roads into Providencia offer some of the best access to a Tropical Cloud Forest and have very little traffic,
so it is very convenient for daytime birding and owling. Sightings of Puma and Baird’s Tapir are quite possible mainly
during night outings. The middle elevation habitats require a 4WD vehicle to access, and of course, to be accompanied by a guide.
Some good birds of the Cloud Forest here include: Resplendent Quetzal, Collared Trogon, Collared Redstar, Slate-throated Redstar,
Spangle-cheeked Tanager, White-winged Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Jay and occasionally
Azure-hooded Jay, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Spotted Wood-Quails, Black Guan, Flame-throated Warbler, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo,
Wrenthrush, Streak-breasted Treehunter, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Lesser Violet-ear, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl,
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Ochraceous Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush,
Large-footed Finch, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Black-cheeked Warbler, Torrent Tyrannulet, American Dipper, Ruddy Treerunner,
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Ocharceous Pewee, Tufted Flycatcher, Black-capped Flycatcher, Barred Parakeet,
Sulfur-winged Parakeet, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Bat Falcon, Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl.
The middle elevations can produce Elegant Euphonia, Spotted Barbtail, Brown-billed Scythebill, Black-breasted Wood-Quail,
Streaked Xenops, Red-faced Spinetail, Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Tropical Parula,
Common Chlorospingus, Costa Rican Warbler, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, White-naped Brush-Finch,
Zeledon’s Antbird, Scaled Antpitta, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Highland Tinamou, Green-fronted Lancebill, and for sure a
few more bird surprises because this little corner is not yet on the birding map and the area is fairly unexplored.
Additionally, a wonderful show of White-collared Swifts coming to roost can be watched by one of the waterfalls in the valley, just a
few meters away from Enrique and Ana’s Home. If you are fine with staying at a rustic lodge with great hospitality, great birds,
good food and coffee, then you might want to visit Providencia de Dota.
Sub-Alpine Tropical Rain Páramo in Cerro de la Muerte
The Páramo of Cerro de La Muerte is typically above 3,000 m (9,840 ft) and reaches elevations of 3,491 m ( 11,453 ft ),
the vegetation is mostly dominated by a small bamboo of the genus Chusquea and grasses, Indian Paint Brushes, Hypericums, Asters,
and Lupines. Easily accessed by car and part of Los Quetzales National Park, in a couple of hours of birding one could observe Volcano Junco,
Volcano Hummingbird, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Timberline Wren, Peg-billed Finch, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, and Sooty Thrush.
Occasionally Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and Slaty Finch can be observed here as well, specially
when large patches of bamboo are seeding.