The Yellow-billed Cotinga is an endangered species that only occurs on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica and western Panama. Although range maps in field guides show it occurring from the Rio Tarcoles (at and near Carara National Park) south to Panama, don’t expect to run into this cotinga at most sites along the coast because the actual distribution of this frugivore is much more spotty than is indicated. It’s localized distribution is due to it being restricted to areas where mangrove forest occurs near rain forest
Although records indicate that they wander in search of fruit, you are far more likely to encounter this species in the canopy of or close to mangroves. This is in contrast to its Caribbean slope cousin, the uncommon (but far from rare) Snowy Cotinga. Ranging from Honduras south to western Panama, the Snowy Cotinga isn’t too difficult to see in areas of lowland forest, forest edge, and riparian corridors. Although it has certainly declined because of deforestation, if one considers the paucity of Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings compared to encounters with Snowy Cotingas, the Snowy appears to be weathering destruction of rainforests much better than the Yellow-billed.
There appear to be very few sites where Yellow-billed Cotingas occur on a regular basis. Even in some areas with mangroves and rain forest (such as at Baru) they are either absent or extremely rare. Due to our near complete lack of information about the natural history of Carpodectes antoniae, no one really knows what this bird needs although its absence at sites such as Baru could possibly be explained by mangroves there not being old enough or the mangrove forests simply not being extensive enough to support a population of Yellow-billed Cotingas.
It should come as no surprise then, that their stronghold is in the extensive, old growth mangroves of the Sierpe River and Golfo Dulce areas of the Osa Peninsula. The mangrove forests in these areas are beautiful, old growth forests that echo with the songs of “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers, the screeches and squawks of parrots and macaws, and the piping calls of Common Black Hawks. The area around Rincon is where I saw my first Yellow-billed Cotingas in 1999. Foraging with Turquoise Cotingas in fruiting figs, their white plumage stood out against the evergreen rain forest on the nearby hills. On a side note, the birding at Rincon was fantastic with Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quails calling from the hillside, White-crested Coquettes foraging in flowering Inga sp., and well over 100 species recorded in a day.
Until recently I saw them on very few occasions elsewhere; a bird or two working its way up rivers in the Osa Peninsula, or very infrequent sightings in Carara National Park. Lately though, I have been seeing Yellow-billed Cotinga on just about every visit to Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations). The birds are from a population that nests in the mangroves near the Tarcol River. Although this population hasn’t been surveyed (admittedly a difficult task to undertake because they love the canopy and don’t sing), it’s probably very small and might only be composed of ten birds. This is pure speculation on my part but there are very few sightings of Yellow-billed Cotinga from Carara and vicinity (and most are of individual birds) despite there being a high number of birders and guides that work in the area.
At Cerro Lodge, I and others, have seen one male perched in a distant snag at the edge of the mangroves. It (or a different male) also sometimes comes closer to the lodge. The bird is usually so far away that it is difficult to see without a scope but is easy to pick out because of its brilliant white plumage.
The view from the restaurant where the male Yellow-billed Cotinga has been regularly seen. If you visit Cerro Lodge, you might see it by scanning all of the treetops from here.
I have also seen a female perched in a tree near the parking lot for Cerro Lodge, and a male was recently seen just down the road as it descends to the flood plain of the river. As Cerro Lodge is located somewhat near the Tarcol River, and based on other observations of this species, I suspect that the birds are foraging in the riparian growth along the river, or are using the river as a corridor to forage in the forests of Carara.
Luckily, the female was very cooperative and let me take a bunch of pictures.
For the past few years, the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre have been doing surveys for Yellow-billed Cotingas and are also involved with other studies of this highly endangered species. To help with its conservation, what is needed now are more studies that can help elucidate its natural history, as well as better protection of mangrove forests and rain forests in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. To help with conservation of Yellow-billed Cotinga, follow the link to Bosque del Rio Tigre and contact them. Also, if you see this species, please email me your notes on where you saw it, the time of year, the habitat it was using, and its behavior (especially foraging). Who knows-maybe there are certain fruiting trees that can be planted that would help this species.
Although Yellow-billed Cotingas has been regular at Cerro Lodge, these may be sightings of just 1-3 individuals. I suspect that there are so few of this species in the Carara area because there is so little habitat between the mangroves and the national park. In contrast to when rainforest adjacent to the mangroves likely provided food and cover for a number of Yellow-billed Cotingas (as at Rincon de Osa where several have been seen together), once that forest was converted into stark pasture, the few fruiting trees left near the mangroves supported far fewer (if any) cotingas, and birds were required to move around more in search of food (with a subsequent higher degree of nest failure and mortality as a result).
Although land owners in the area can’t be expected to reforest their pastures, hopefully, they will be willing to accept the planting of various fruiting trees used by this rare species.