By Karl Kahler
If you’re interested in seeing birds, you might want to make space on your calendar for Monteverde, Costa Rica, one of the most iconic destinations in the world for avid birders.
Dennis Fernández, 29, has been leading birdwatching tours in Monteverde for six years. Dennis says some 10,000 bird species are believed to exist in the entire world, and in Costa Rica there are said to be some 923. That means that out of roughly every 10 bird species in the world, one probably lives in Costa Rica.
Dennis, who often leads tours for guests from Monteverde Lodge & Gardens, said he has seen four ocelots in his time here. But when you ask him about birding, that really gets him talking.
Among the endemic species here, he mentions the black-faced solitaire, collared redstart, purple-throated mountain-gem, coppery-headed emerald, slaty-backed nightingale thrush and elegant euphonia. (Sometimes when you talk to bird experts, it sounds like they’re just making words up.)
“Endemic” means these birds are found only here, and perhaps in Panama, he said. And of course, he’s seen them all.
Probably the birder’s biggest prize here is the resplendent quetzal, a type of trogon with iridescent green feathers, red bellies and a long tail. The quetzal was worshipped by ancient Mesoamerican cultures and is the national bird of Guatemala. You won’t see quetzals in cages, because they die in captivity.
About 30 of the birds you can see at Monteverde are hummingbirds. Other species spotted here include the rare three-wattled bellbird, the orange-bellied trogon, the keel-billed toucan and the blue-throated goldentail.
Dennis says some 460 bird species have been “registered” in Monteverde, meaning spotted and positively identified — although he stressed that this represents a very low estimate of all the species that exist here.
“This is an average that includes endemic, resident and migratory species,” he said. “These are counts that are done every year. Sometimes you find more, sometimes you find less.”
One commonly cited statistic is that Costa Rica has only 0.03% of the world’s land mass, but 5% of its biodiversity. In other words, of every 20 animal species in the world, one lives in Costa Rica.
I asked Dennis what were the rarest birds you can see in Monteverde. He mentioned the silvery-fronted tapaculo, the wrenthrush, the black-and-yellow silky-flycatcher and the fairy-throated hummingbird.
I asked if it’s true that hummingbirds (like sloths) can’t walk. He said he has never seen a hummingbird walk. If a hummingbird wants to move one inch down a twig, it just flies.
Monteverde does not have a national park, but it has several nature reserves known for birdwatching. These include the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and the Curi-Cancha Reserve. You can reserve birdwatching tours at any of these, or you can enter on your own.
Monteverde is a fascinating place to visit for many reasons, including its unusual history. The area was developed by Quakers from Alabama seeking to escape the peacetime draft in the late 1940s. Eleven families of Quakers, who call themselves Friends, bought 1,400 acres in these mountains and came here by air, sea and land in 1951. Back then, the journey by land took three months.
Seeking a way to earn money, they founded the Monteverde Cheese Factory in 1952. Monteverde remains famous for its cheese, but the Quakers’ greatest contribution was founding the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in 1972.
A cloud forest is a high-altitude tropical rain forest that is usually shrouded in mist — essentially ground-level clouds. A tour guide at Monteverde once told me that the cloud forest is the richest habitat in the world, with 475 tons of biomass per hectare, followed by tropical rain forests, which have 325.
Cloud forests are chilly and wet, so if you come, bring warm clothing and rain gear.
The worst thing that ever happened on one of Dennis’ birdwatching tours was when somebody decided to touch a tarantula hawk wasp.br>
“I could see tears in his eyes,” said Dennis. “He had to go to a clinic.”
But normally nothing bites on the birdwatching tours out of Monteverde Lodge. In fact, this will probably be your best chance ever to see any number of the tropical birds on your lifetime wish list.