Costa Rica: Cloud Forest Birding at Savegre

We said our goodbyes to my in-laws in Puerto Jimenez where they returned to Dominical on the Pacific coast side of the country. Steve and I drove north inland where the landscape changed from the tropical palms and fig trees of southern Costa Rica to the dense virgin cloud forest made up of pine trees, avocado trees and massive black oak trees covered in moss. The twisting, windy road led us to the foothills of the Talamanca Cordillera Mountain Range and the Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve and Spa where we stayed for the next chapter on our Costa Rica adventure.

On our drive to Savegre.
Our Costa Rica trip so far.

It’s always nice to arrive when there’s a rainbow over the property where you’re staying. Rooms at the Savegre Hotel are nice and spacious, though our room didn’t have a heater. (Some do, I was told, so be sure to call in advance about that if electrical heat is important to you.) But it did have a wood stove, which we (Steve) stoked and tended to with the firewood provided by the hotel. It’s cold at this high elevation of 7,200 feet, and this is what’s considered Costa Rica’s “middle elevation.” I was pleased we at least had the wood stove and also that I had my light down parka with me during both the chilly mornings and evenings.

The hotel has a spa onsite, which I didn’t take advantage of, sadly. (Limited time, plus I make different decisions now that I’m unemployed.) There is a good restaurant onsite as well. The property is an ideal destination for the type of couple where one is a birder and the other would rather get a massage and wander around the vast gardens, where hummingbirds and flower piercers flit around.

A rainbow over the Savegre Hotel property.

Looking for the Resplendent Quetzal

Once we arrived, we arranged for a bird guide to take us to see the Resplendent Quetzal for the following morning. It’s quite easy to get this tour and the hotel also has other birding tours, including a hike to the paramo* in the highlands of the Talamanca Cordillera. Steve really wanted to do that hike, but it would take an entire day and we were only here for two nights and we wouldn’t be able to fit in both tours.

The following morning after our arrival we woke up at 5 a.m. showered and then met our guide, Melvin Fernandez outside the main building where the hotel provides hot coffee and tea for the early birders and other adventurers. He loaded us into his specialized touring truck that had padded benches in the back facing out the left and right sides. It was a brisk drive up the road a couple miles to the area where the quetzal is often a guarantee. (But not always.)

When we arrived, other groups of birders had already arrived with their guides setting up spotting scopes in the middle of the road, pointing them in the direction where they each thought they might find the bird. Occasionally we would hear a car or truck approaching and guides would swiftly snatch up their scopes and direct us all to the edge of the road before the vehicle rumbled by.

It was foggy as you’d expect in the cloud forest and slowly the sun began to rise and the clouds lifted. Melvin pointed out a toucanet that arrived and hopped from branch to branch. Songbirds like the Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Large-footed Finch and Yellow-thighed Finch were delightful birds to find.

Sooty-capped Chlorospingus
Large-footed Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch

And then from out of the heavens it came

After 20 minutes of earnest searching with all eyes on the sky and in the trees, the main attraction flew in like a long, fluttering streamer from heaven and landed in an avocado tree. It was the Resplendent Quetzal. A bright green bird with a crimson breast and short little yellow beak. You couldn’t miss its iridescent green and aquamarine tail feather plumes extending two feet below it as it perched.

“Hold still,” I told Steve. I put the camera up to my eye and focused, held my breath and leaned on him to help me stop the slightest shaking for the clearest photo possible. The quetzal looked left and then right, as if posing. Sometimes it seemed to be looking right at me, though I was 150 feet away. I understood in that moment why artists depicted angels with wings, and why the ancient Mayas and Aztec worshipped this bird. There was something divine about it.

Resplendent Quetzal

A garden of songbirds

After snapping about 300 photos Melvin said it was time to leave. He wanted to take us to his garden. He had me sit in the front of the truck with him because it was warmer and Steve sat alone on one of the benches in the back of the truck. Melvin’s family home is on Hotel Savegre’s property and they’ve set up seed, fruit and nectar feeders to draw in the birds. We sat on benches they provided for viewing (and they also had cookies and coffee for a donation). The sun was now bright and birds came in to feed. We snapped another 300 or so photos that included Baltimore Orioles, Silver-throated Tanagers, an Acorn Woodpecker, Flame-colored Tanager and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

Baltimore Orioles
Silver-throated Tanager
Acorn Woodpecker
Flame-colored Tanager
Red-legged Honeycreeper

There were loads of hummingbirds, but for now I will show you one of my favorites, the Green Violetear. After I finish my posts about Costa Rica by location, I’m going to do a round-up specifically dedicated to the hummingbirds we saw on this trip. So stay tuned for that post.

Green Violetear shimmering in the sun.

And lastly, this is the bird (below) that I mention when asked, “What’s your favorite bird?”

It’s the Melodious Blackbird.

Melodious Blackbird

It came to the feeders and stood out because it lacked the showiness of the other birds. Most people think it’s strange that I choose a bird with no color at all when I have seen so many brilliant ones. But it’s this bird’s song that first won my heart when I saw it for the first time when Steve and I honeymooned in Mexico. It puts its whole body into singing. When the Melodious Blackbird squats to fill its tiny little lungs with air and then sings a long, complicated trill, it’s like watching Pavarotti take a deep breath before hitting the big note in Nessun Dorma.

Colors are certainly lovely, and I was thrilled to see the Resplendent Quetzal with its flamboyant and striking feathers, but I’m equally moved by a bird’s song.


Lastly, here’s a video of waiting for the Resplendent Quetzal. And also a guy with some ginormous binoculars.

*Paramo = Scientists describe paramo as “Neotropical high mountain biome with a vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses.” (uteyn, James L. (1999). Páramos: A Checklist of Plant Diversity, Geographical Distribution, and Botanical Literature. Bronx, New York: New York Botanical Garden Press.)