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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
"Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

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A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!

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Four Common Black Birds of Costa Rica

Up north in the temperate zone, black birds are a common part of the avian landscape.  In North America,  American Crows and  Common Grackles are some of the most frequently seen bird species in many areas. Birders in Europe can hardly miss seeing Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and Blackbirds (a thrush). In Costa Rica, there aren’t any crows. Instead, there are birds that occupy similar niches (Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles), and birds that are crow-sized and somewhat shaped like crows (oropendolas).

When birding Costa Rica, birders will also see plenty of four species with black plumage. These four bird species are the Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Groove-billed Ani, and Melodious Blackbird. All are common edge species of lowland and middle elevations that make their home in deforested areas and often live around towns. Although their black plumages are fairly similar, they have different shapes that help with their identification.

Since they occur in so many places, I won’t even say where you can see them when birding Costa Rica. I will talk about their identification, though, because a number of birders seem to have trouble in separating them.

1. The first on our list is often the first bird that people see in Costa Rica upon exiting the airport- the Great-tailed Grackle. This large, noisy bird has become amazingly adapted to living with people. A scavenger and opportunist of beaches, riversides, and wetlands, urban environments apparently mimic these open habitats because Great-tailed Grackles seem to be right at home as they forage on city streets, pick at garbage, and sing crazy songs from trees in a busy park. A large, black bird with a long, wedge-shaped tail seen when birding Costa Rica will be the male of this common species.

Male Great-tailed Grackles can look kind of nice at close range.
Quoth the Grackle..."Got any garbage"?

2. Melodious Blackbird. I wouldn’t call their vocalization melodious, but they are pretty darn vocal. Birders will hear their ringing song in most deforested areas of the country. This is pretty impressive considering that the Melodious Blackbird entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua only since the 1980s. This common, black-plumaged bird has a very generic bird shape. They sometimes occur in flocks but are most often seen as pairs perched together at the top of a tree in edge habitats. An American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird sized, all black bird with a medium length tail, flat head, and longish beak seen when birding Costa Rica will almost certainly be this species.

Click here to listen to one of its vocalizations:

Melodious Blackbird

Melodious Blackbird- a good bird to know when birding Costa Rica because you will see them all over the place.

3. Bronzed Cowbird. With deforestation, this has become a very common bird species in Costa Rica. Like its northern cousin with the brown head, the Bronzed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of a number of other birds. Unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird, few studies have been carried out to ascertain how its nesting behavior affects local bird species. When birding Costa Rica, if you see a small group of dark birds in flight that resemble “winter finches”, you have seen Bronzed Cowbirds. Their dumpy body and shortish bill gives them this finch-like appearance. When seen close up, they look kind of cool with that red eye.

My cool, red eyes are on the lookout for cows and unguarded nests.

4. Groove-billed Ani. The Smooth-billed is also pretty common in southwestern Costa Rica (and replaces the Groove-billed there), but the Groove-billed Ani is the one encountered the most because it has a larger range. These animated cuckoos are always fun to watch with their odd, parrot-like bills, short wings, long tails, and interesting social behavior. If you catch them in good light, their plumage can also show beautiful greenish and blueish iridescence. Similar in size and shape to the Great-tailed Grackle, Groove-billed Anis have shorter wings, are lankier, and have that short, arched bill.

Not all birds in Costa Rica look as exotic as quetzals or bellbirds but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them when birding Costa Rica. The birds talked about above are so common that it will be tough not to watch them.

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Costa Rica birding near San Ramon

San Ramon is a small city on the western edge of the central valley in Costa Rica. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer for birding in Costa Rica but some nearby areas have a lot of potential. Although I know of a few local birders who visit the cloud forests and middle elevation rainforests near San Ramon, since I have never seen this area mentioned in a trip report, I suspect that it isn’t on most people’s birding agenda.

This is probably due to the sites being located off the regularly beaten path when birding Costa Rica. However, after some recent exploration near San Ramon, I think that every birder should make some time for birding this area, especially if they are on their way to Arenal.

Since the closing of the Cinchona road (nope, not fixed yet and don’t expect that anytime soon), there are three main routes that people usually take to get to Arenal from San Jose. The most popular route is the road that passes through Grecia and Zarcero before crossing over to the Caribbean Slope and reaching Ciudad Quesada. This route is probably the quickest but it’s also the least birdy.

The most adventurous route is the road that passes through Bajos del Toro. This steep road goes through some nice cloud forest and isn’t very busy but I will post about that some other time.

The third route (and the one that this post does deal with) is highway 141 that leaves San Ramon and passes through Los Angeles (the Costa Rican version is vastly different from the American one) on its way to La Fortuna. In fact, even if you didn’t want to stop for birds on your way to Arenal, this is the most direct and scenic route to La Fortuna. That said, you should ALWAYS stop and bird along the way because this underbirded area has lots of great middle elevation forest!

This road provides access to a number of excellent sites including Pocosol, but the two places I visited this past Sunday are the most accessible; (1) The road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and (2) the San Luis Canopy Restaurant.

You will see the road to Manuel Brenes on the left, just as you reach an interesting marsh (aren’t they all) and lakes on the right side of the road. These lakes are supposedly good for Pied-billed Grebe although we didn’t see this uncommon Costa Rican resident on Sunday. I was expecting the usual rutted, rough track but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was in pretty good condition. Although you have to watch out for menacing rocks, and feel scared crossing small bridges, even a two wheel drive could manage this birdy track.

Yes, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve is a birdy track AND it has almost no traffic!

A birdy looking track.

It passes through nice middle elevation forest (800 meters) for several kilometers before coming to a more open area where the road forks. Even the open area was good and looked like the perfect place to scan treetops for Lovely Cotinga. We didn’t continue past the fork and I suspect the road gets worse from there but who knows?

Despite getting rained out for half of the morning, we had a pretty good selection of species and I know this area has much more to offer (others have seen antswarms and Tiny Hawk for example). Once the rain stopped, we saw:

Too rainy to fly today.

Perched Short-tailed Hawks. I am pretty sure this is the only time I have seen this species on a perch anywhere (I have probably seen at least a couple hundred in flight). We also got a perched White Hawk from the same location

The beautiful White Hawk is seen now and then when birding Costa Rica.

in addition to Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Guan (pretty common along the road), flybys of Brown-hooded Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and tanagers such as Passerini’s, Crimson-collared, Silver-throated, Palm, and the local Blue and Gold.

Blue and Gold Tanager sharing a tree with a much duller Palm Tanager.

Mixed flocks along the road had Spotted Woodcreeper,

Spotted Woodcreeper is the common woodcreeper of foothill and middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica.

Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (no pic but trust me, we had perfect looks at this warbler-like flycatcher), Plain Xenops, White-ruffed Manakin, Lesser Greenlet, noisy Olive Tanagers, Black and Yellow Tanagers, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

The lack of trails going into the forest makes it very difficult to see the Thicket Antpittas and Black-headed Antthrushes that we heard but the area is still very much worth a visit and can even be done as a day trip from San Jose (about an hour and a half drive).

Another view of this birdy road.

The other thing that makes this a great site for a day trip is the nearby Arboleda Restaurant at the San Luis Canopy. Watch for it on the east side of the road on your way back to San Jose. Or, you can stop there before you get to the road to Manuel Brenes but it’s better to visit this site for lunch.

The Arboleda Restaurant is a quick 10 minute drive from the entrance to Manuel Brenes road.

The San Luis Canopy site mostly does those canopy zipline tours but they also have several hummingbird feeders and views into the cloud forest from the restaurant (which is very good and has decent prices). They also have a trail but it’s not very developed and is more for maintaining the ziplines. The hummingbird feeders are the main attraction and showcase such stars as Green-crowned Brilliant,

Green-crowned Brilliants are common at cloud forest feeders when birding Costa Rica.

Coppery-headed Emerald,

One of Costa Rica's endemic bird species.

Green Hermit,

Green Hermits are pretty common in foothill and cloud forests when birding Costa Rica.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph,

Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of the more commonly seen hummingbirds of Costa Rican rainforests.

the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- the de-facto hummingbird when birding Costa Rica.

and Green Thorntail.

Green Thorntails are rather local in Costa Rica.

I hope to make this one of my regular birding sites and will offer day tours here soon because I am sure that the forests near San Ramon have a lot more in store when birding Costa Rica!

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Bang for your buck birding in Costa Rica: the El Copal Biological Reserve

In my search for sites suitable for Birding Club of Costa Rica field trips, I had sometimes come across this place that was rumored to possibly be the best birding spot in Costa Rica. This is quite a statement for a country that boasts over 800 bird species that soar over, haunt, enliven, troop through, and skulk in the undergrowth of habitats as varied as mangrove forests that sprout out of muddy, brackish waters, cloud forests with mossy branches that hide quetzals and chlorophonias, rain forests that tower into the sky like living cathedrals, and tropical dry forests with Thicket Tinamous whistling from the undergrowth and Black-headed Trogons calling from the canopy.

El Copal is the name of this community run project located off the beaten path somewhere between Turrialba and Tapanti on the Caribbean slope flanks of the Talamanca mountains.

That's me. I was there.

Serious kudos and a giant heap of fantastic karma goes out to the community who own El Copal for their decision to manage the property as a biological reserve and ecotourism venture instead of what they had originally planned for the site: exchanging the irreplaceable biodiversity of El Copal’s rain forests with croplands.

This decision was in part influenced by the fact that most of the land was declared unsuitable for agriculture but this doesn’t take away from the brave choice they made to simply not clear the forests. Their neighbors and peers laughed at them and called them “vagos” or “bums” because they weren’t “putting the land to work” and it took a few years before they began to see benefits from the El Copal project, but thankfully, this excellent birding option has managed to survive (and appears to be doing well).

Although I wouldn’t call it the best birding site in Costa Rica (and I don’t think there is one best site), I will say that it is one of the better sites for birding Costa Rica and a good budget alternative to Rancho Naturalista. The habitat and birds are somewhat similar to those of Rancho but there is more forest at El Copal and it’s a lot cheaper (but also has accommodations that are a great deal more basic). Myself and others came to this conclusion after a recent, overnight trip to El Copal with the Birding Club of Costa Rica.

The drive there became lovely as soon as we left the Central Valley maze of concrete behind at Paraiso. The road winded down through coffee plantations and scattered trees festooned with Spanish Moss (I don’t know about the other mosses, but Moss al Espanol is very prone to festooning) and gave us constant panoramas of dawn greeting the Talamancan Mountains.

The birdlife of the surrounding countryside also came to life and with the windows down, we listened to the songs of those birds that have come to call coffee plantations home: Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers, Blue-crowned Motmots, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Rufous-capped Warblers, Brown Jays, Red-billed Pigeons and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

We didn’t encounter anything rare so we didn’t bother to stop. Who could blame us? We were headed to a place declared by others to be the best birding site in Costa Rica. The directions to El Copal are Ok but they aren’t complete by any means. Without asking locals along the way where the next town was, we could have gotten lost on more than one occasion. It’s not too difficult to find (and there are a few signs to the string of towns along the way- Tucurrique, Pejibaye, and El Humo), but don’t expect to get there without asking a local or feeling a bit lost.

On our way to El Copal- a great place for birding in Costa Rica.

Two hours after leaving San Jose, we arrived at El Copal around seven a.m. and the birding commenced in earnest. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a flurry of hummingbirds that buzzed in and out of the Verbena bushes in front of the buildings

Hummingbirds filled the Verbena hedgerows at El Copal

When birding most low or middle elevation sites in Costa Rica, the de-facto hummingbird species is usually the good, old Rufous-tailed. If you get tired of seeing this common species zip around, however, make your way to El Copal and watch Green Thorntails buzz around instead! Yes, the exquisite Green Thorntail was the most common hummingbird at El Copal!

A male Green Thorntail doing some sort of hummingbird disco move.
A female Green Thorntail looking chic.

I never saw so many of this species in my life. During our stay at El Copal, We only saw one measly Rufous-tailed among the many species encountered in the flowering bushes and heliconias right around the buildings! No need for hummingbird feeders here! The other living jewels we had were Green Hermit, Bronzy Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem,

A male Purple-throated Mountain Gem shining in the sun at El Copal.

White-throated Mountain-Gem (at 900 meters, far below its preferred elevations),

What am I doing at this low elevation?

White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Violetear, and Snowcap!

Male Snowcaps are such incredible looking birds!

We also saw Purple-crowned Fairy away from the bushes for a grand total of 14 hummingbird species seen close to the lodge! And this wasn’t all of the species on their list either. I suspect that at other times of the year, Black-crested Coquette and Violet-headed Hummingbird may also be around. Although the bushes looked perfect for the Coquette, none of the Inga trees that this species prefers were in bloom so, like many hummingbirds, they could migrate up or downslope to where such trees are sporting the small flowers they prefer.

Also of note was the paucity of White-bellied Mountain-Gems. I saw one when we arrived and that was it despite this species being fairly common just on the other side of the hills at Tapanti National Park! There were also other species of birds that were present at El Copal during our stay but absent or uncommon at Tapanti. Although El Copal partly connects Tapanti with Amistad International Park, its slightly lower elevation of 900 meters probably explains the avifaunal differences.

Of the 133 species that were identified in two days, some of the highlights from our trip were:

Raptors. The view of a nearby forested ridge from the lodge combined with sunny weather made for good raptor activity.

The forested ridge in front of the lodge.

We were half expecting to see a Solitary Eagle at any time because we were in the perfect place for this rare bird of prey but instead we saw:

Double-toothed Kite- one of these small, common raptors briefly joined the Barred Hawks to soar on thermals above the ridge.

American Swallow-tailed Kite- a few of these definitions of elegance were in sight throughout most of our stay and even soared right over the buildings.

Barred Hawk- a pair gave us great views as they soared around in front of us.

White Hawk- one flew right over the buildings.

Short-tailed Hawk- a dark phase bird often kited overhead.

Black Hawk-Eagle- one molting adult soared high overhead on our first day.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: El Copal might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. Really, someone needs to do a thesis on the ecology of this rare, little known species at El Copal. I heard at least 5 different birds vocalizing at El Copal, including one right in front of the buildings. They were pretty tough to see and were found in what appeared to be old second growth. This was a great addition to my year list!

Gray-headed Piprites: Another little known, rare species. I heard one along the Mariposa trail. It may have been foraging with a mixed flock that was present when it vocalized but I only heard it once and didn’t see it. Another awesome addition to the year list (I count heard birds for my year list). There are very few reliable sites for this species in Costa Rica but El Copal might be one of them.

Black-headed Antthrush: One or two were heard singing from the dense, foothill rainforests. I think this species occurs at Tapanti too but whenever I am there, I only hear the double tooting song of Rufous-breasted Antthrush- the species that replaces the Black-headed at higher elevations.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner- like the Black-headed Antthrush, this is one of those species that is much more common in northwestern Ecuador. It was nice to see one doing acrobatics with a mixed flock just before we left the place on Sunday.

Brown-billed Scythebill- one was heard giving a brief snatch of its song as a mixed flock tantalized us in the vegetation on the other side of a ravine.

Immaculate Antbird- a few were heard calling but they didn’t want to come out and play.

Dull-mantled Antbird- these were pretty responsive though and showed well along the Mariposa trail.

Thicket Antpitta- a few of this expert skulker stayed out of sight but it was nothing like the numbers of this bird that occur at Pocosol.

Rufous-browed Tyrannulet- El Copal seems like a good spot for this flycatcher masquerading as a warbler.

Alder/Willow Flycatcher- I surmise that the silent bird we saw was a female being quiet about her trip back to the north.

Thrushlike Schiffornis- One of this uncommon species was heard in the woods but it wouldn’t show itself.

Lovely Cotinga-well, ok, we didn’t see this species but we dined in the kitchen named after it! According to the birder from the community named Beto, this most wanted bird shows up for a short time in August to feast on fruiting Melastomes that grow right in front of the lodge (guess when I’m headed to El Copal for my next visit).

Tanagers (including honeycreepers and dacnis)- although these colorful, small birds were pretty tough to see because they were in love with hanging out in the canopy, the 17 species we identified are probably much easier to watch when they come to feed with the cotinga on Melastome fruits in August. Best species were Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Tanager, Rufous-winged Tanager, and White-winged Tanager.

A close-up of Melastome trees near the lodge.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Chestnut-headed Oropendola- these rainforest canopy species were easy to watch as they called from and frequented the treetops visible from the lodge.

This Chestnut-headed Oropendola hung out in a cecropia near the kichen.

I am sure that El Copal has more to offer and it’s a great birding spot but it’s a bit too far to do as a day trip from San Jose and the accommodations are pretty rustic. However, if you don’t mind bunkbeds with thin mattresses, cold showers, and possible encounters with nocturnal rodents, then you should definitely visit! I think it would be an especially good place to carry out research because there is lots of good habitat and costs are fairly low. Reservations are required for visiting El Copal and can be arranged through the ACTUAR organization.

Inside the lodge.
The type of bed you sleep in at El Copal.