Cotingas! An appropriately evocative sounding name for breathtaking birds that look like the results of someone’s wild imagination. They all seem to be odd or wacky because birders familiar with temperate zone families just don’t know what to make of them. Purple-throated Fruitcrow- hmmm, if it’s a crow then why does it have shiny purple throat? Three-wattled Bellbird- why does the male have long, black wormy things hanging off of its bill? Bare-necked Umbrellabird- what mad scientists combined a Magnificent Frigatebird with a long lost dwarf cousin of the king of rock and roll?
Before a birding trip to Costa Rica, we flip through the pages of Garrigues and Dean or Stiles and Skutch to feed our excitement and prep for our trip. As if those antbirds with blue around the eyes and delicate, fancy manakins weren’t enough to make you want to change the date of your flight for tomorrow, when the pages fall open to the cotingas, you almost question whether such fantastic looking birds can actually exist. In addition to the three mindblowers above, there are four other species that consistently grasp the attention of birders headed to Costa Rica. These are the two Carpodectes species (Snowy Cotinga and Yellow-billed Cotinga) and the two Cotinga species (Turquoise Cotinga and Lovely Cotinga).
We try to make sense out of their strange dovish shapes and brilliant white or glittering blue and purple plumages and can only come to the conclusion that we MUST see these birds! After ungluing our eyes from the page that showcases these avian treasures, this quartet of Costa Rican birds become major targets. Upon reading the text, however, our elation is given a serious blow by dreaded descriptions of status such as “uncommon” and “rare”. They don’t cease to be target birds but we now know that it’s going to take some serious effort to see them because they are pretty tough no matter how good your best birding aim might be.
Nevertheless, as with any challenging bird species, the probability of seeing them goes up if you know where and how to look for them. The following are my hints and educated guesses for ticking off all four of these major targets when birding Costa Rica.
All four species: Find fruiting trees that attract these hardcore frugivores. Since Costa Rica strangely lacks canopy towers (a major aid in seeing tree-top loving cotingas), this is the most guaranteed means of ticking off the cotinga quartet. Ficus and Lauraceae species trees in particular are goldmines for these birds but also watch for them at any fruiting trees within their ranges. If you notice a tree in fruit, scan those branches and hang out for a bit. Even if a cotinga doesn’t show up, other birds and monkeys might make an appearance.
Snowy Cotinga (Carpodectes nitidus): To make things easier, let’s start with this most frequently encountered member of our cotinga quartet. It lives in the Caribbean lowlands and despite the tragic, extensive destruction of lowland rainforests in its Costa Rican range, still hangs on and is regularly seen in a number of areas. It is often seen in riparian forest although this could also be a function of more forest being found along river corridors or that it’s easier to see into the canopy. It isn’t common but you have a fair chance of seeing it by looking for it at the sites below:
- La Selva and Sarapiqui- Look for white or light gray (the female) birds where the canopy is visible along the Sarapiqui River, the La Selva entrance road, and around the La Selva buildings. I have also seen it at such lodges as Selva Verde and El Gavilan.
- Tortuguero- Snowy Cotingas are regularly seen in the forest canopy visible from the canals.
- Hitoy Cerere- Good, quality lowland forest means nunbirds, Great Jacamar, and Snowy Cotingas! I saw small groups of this species at the HQ on several occasions during visits in 2000 and 2001.
Yellow-billed Cotinga (Carpodectes antoniae): The other gleaming white cotinga in Costa Rica is much rarer than the Snowy. It isn’t overly difficult to see in appropriate habitat but therein lies the problem. The Yellow-billed Cotinga has evolved on the Pacific slope of southern Costa Rica and western Panama to be a rather finicky species that requires lowland rainforest adjacent to mangroves. Take away one of these habitats or remove forest that connects the two and this fancy species gradually disappears. Because of limited habitat within a small range, this bird is in trouble. I bet strategic reforestation and planting native fruiting trees would help it though.
- Rincon de Osa- Extensive, tall mangroves next to primary rainforest make this the most accessible and reliable site to see Yellow-billed Cotinga when birding Costa Rica. You still may need to locate a fruiting tree but you have a pretty good chance of getting this rarity around here.
- Bosque del Rio Tigre- Yellow-billed Cotinga is often seen near the lodge and if not, the owners offer day tours to see this species at other sites. They should know where it is because they have done studies to assess its status.
- The Osa Peninsula in general- Yellow-billed Cotinga can show up along rivers just about anywhere in forested parts of the Osa.
- The Sierpe River- Watching the mangroves from the village of Sierpe or taking a boat ride through them offers a very good chance at seeing more than one as mangroves along the Sierpe River are indeed the main stronghold for this species anywhere in its small range.
- Ventanas de Osa- Traveling south from Dominical, one comes to a small plaza with a high end liquor store and souvenir shop. Across the street is rainforest that sometimes harbors Yellow-billed Cotinga.
- Carara National Park- I wouldn’t list this among the best sites to see this rare species but include it to give you an idea of your chances for seeing it there. It still shows up at fruiting trees along both trails in the park, sometimes makes an appearance on the mangrove boat tour, and is occasionally viewed from the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles or from Cerro Lodge BUT don’t expect to see it. The population here probably can’t cope with the lack of forest between mangroves and the national park because it seems to have seriously declined over the years and might even become extirpated from around Carara at any time.
This Yellow-billed Cotinga was at Rincon de Osa.
Turquoise Cotinga (Cotinga ridgwayi): This gorgeous bird of birds is uncommon but seen with regularity at several sites. Once again, fruiting trees are the way to see it and it could turn up in any forested lowland or foothill area from Carara (where it is very rare) south to Panama. A few of the more reliable sites are listed below.
- Wilson Botanical Garden- It might turn up, it might not but you have a fair chance of laying eyes on it here and resident birders might also be around to let you know where it has been seen.
- Los Cusingos- This small reserve and former farm of Alexander Skutch could be the best site to get this species.
- The Osa Peninsula- The Turquoise Cotinga seems to be most common in the lowland rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. A visit to any lodge here could turn up one or more and perched birds are often scoped from the front of the Bosque del Rio Tigre.
- Talari Mountain Lodge- Although this site isn’t extensively forested, Turqoise Cotinga is seen quite often.
A glowing male Turquoise Cotinga from Talari Mountain Lodge.
This one was at Rincon de Osa. One often sees both Yellow-billed and Turquoise at this site.
A backlit Turquoise Cotinga.
Lovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis): The most difficult of the quartet, this is somewhat of a mystery species in Costa Rica. I suspect that it has declined with deforestation in the Caribbean Lowlands because what little information we have of this bird in Costa Rica points to it being an elevational migrant. Skutch studied a pair that nested and visited a fruiting Lauraceae tree near Varablanca several decades ago and discovered that like several other frugivorous species on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica, it nests at middle elevations during the start of the wet season and likely descends to the lowlands at other times of the year in search of fruit. I scan the treetops every time I visit the Varablanca area but because so much forest has been cut since Skutch’s day and since I have never heard of anyone seeing it at the Waterfall Gardens or Virgen del Socorro, I wonder if it still occurs there. It seems to be espied more often in Honduras and southern Mexico but if you are headed to Costa Rica, you might get lucky by scanning the canopy and watching fruiting trees at the sites below.
- Silent Mountain- This excellent middle elevation site near Rancho Naturalista is probably the most reliable site for Lovely Cotinga in Costa Rica. It’ a long walk uphill and is probably seasonal but even if you don’t see a cotinga, you might get other rare birds such as Sharpbill or Rufous-rumped Antwren. This is offered as a guided trip at Rancho Naturalista.
- Arenal- The Observatory Lodge is just about the only place where this species is sighted with regularity in Costa Rica. It might also turn up at fruiting trees along the road into Arenal, around the lake, at the hanging bridges, or at the waterfall near La Fortuna.
- Tenorio, Miravalles, and Rincon de la Vieja- It has occurred a few times at Las Heliconias lodge during April and should occur on the Caribbean slope of these volcanoes at other sites too.
- El Copal- During the second week of August, more than one Lovely Cotinga has shown up at fruiting Melastomes right in front of this community owned lodge and reserve!
Since all of the cotinga quartet seems to be prone to wandering, they could show up at a number of other sites as well. Keep watching those fruiting trees, scan the canopy, and if you seen one or know of other sites for these species, please comment about it below!