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El Copal is this rather remote, community owned and run reserve situated between Tapanti National Park and Amistad International Park. Biogeographically speaking, it is located on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancan Mountains in the foothill/middle elevation zone. Birdingly speaking, this means that you are always in for one heck of an avian ride when visiting El Copal.

I guided a recent Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to El Copal this past weekend and although the ever elusive Lovely Cotinga failed to show, we still had some pretty awesome birding. Yes, our goal was actually Lovely Cotinga as mid-August is when a few have historically showed up at El Copal to feed on fruiting Melastomes in front of the lodge. I suspect that diligent birding could turn them up at other times of the year as well but despite scanning the forest canopy several times a day, we didn’t see any cotingas.  Since this species appears to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica (and should be considered locally endangered in my opinion) , that was no big surprise.

We were, however, intrigued by the shortage of hummingbird species. Quality was there in the form of ever present Snowcaps and Violet-headed Hummingbirds, but where were the other 10 species that buzzed the Porterweed in May, 2010? At that time, Green Thorntail was the most common hummingbird. On this trip, it didn’t even make the list.  The dearth of hummingbirds was testament to the fact that many hummingbird species in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) make lots of movements or short migrations in search of their favorite  flowers.

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Male Snowcap (now that’s some serious quality).

birding Costa Rica

Male Violet-headed Hummingbird (it gets a quality sticker too).

While the cotingas didn’t show up to feast on Melastome fruits, the tanagers sure did. Among the 18 species that highlighted the trees in front of the lodge with their glittering plumage were such highlights as Blue and Gold, Emerald, Black and Yellow, and Speckled Tanagers. Scarlet-thighed Dacnis were pretty common and I have never been any place in Costa Rica where it was so easy to see White-vented Euphonia. We must have had six of this uncommon species hanging out right at the lodge.

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A bad picture of two White-vented Euphonias. Find them if you can!

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A back view of a male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Accompanying the tanagers were Scarlet-rumped Caciques, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Spotted Woodcreeper, several Tropical Parulas and Bananaquits, and Band-backed Wrens. The forest edge near the lodge was also good for Golden-olive Woodpecker, both oropendolas, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari, and held a pair of Spectacled Owls at night. Beto, one of the gracious owners of the lodge, also told us about the Mottled Owls that make regular appearances at the lodge.

The birds mentioned above made for some fantastic, busy birding from the balcony. It was also a great place to watch the huge flocks of White-collared Swifts the flew over in the evening and to watch for raptors. Regarding hawks and other sharply clawed birds, we were surprised to see so few raptors when so many showed up on our previous trip to this site. The only raptors we had other than vultures were one Short-tailed Hawk, a few Swallow-tailed Kites, a couple of heard only Barred Forest-Falcons, Bat Falcon, and one distant, immature Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

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The balcony at El Copal.

Inside the forest, the cloudy, partly rainy weather boosted the bird activity to new heights. Saturday had a good number of mixed flocks, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, and calling Tawny-chested Flycatcher, but Sunday was downright amazing. We took the upper trail and the bird activity was just about non-stop from 6 to 8am. Big mixed flocks accompanied us along the trail that were dominated by Carmiol’s Tanagers and held rarities such as Rufous-browed Tyrannulets, Black and White Becard, and even one Sharpbill (seen by just one person in the group). We also got onto a few Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers, Slaty-capped and Olive-striped Flycatchers, Russet Antshrike, White-winged Tanager, and Plain Xenops in addition to most of the tanager species seen at the lodge. I suppose our other best forest birds were singing Black-headed Antthrush and one flushed Chiriqui Quail-Dove.

Not counting the Torrent Tyrannulet, Tawny-crested Tanagers, and Sunbittern and dozen or so open country species seen on the way to and from the lodge, we got 125 species in total. This was a pretty good total considering that most were forest birds. Making arrangements to stay at El Copal was a bit confusing at times, and the directions to the place posted at the ACTUAR site should be more specific but the rest of the trip went  as smooth as chocolate silk pie. Our hosts from the community were friendly, gracious, and very accommodating (5 am coffee). The lodge is still quite rustic with basic beds and cold showers (yikes!) but they may have solar water heaters for our next visit. The community is looking for and open to accepting funds to put in a solar water heater (all electricity there is solar in nature) and could also use other things like extra binoculars, field guides, and a green laser pointer (works wonders for pointing out birds in the forest). If interested in making a donation to El Copal, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to put you in touch with the owners.

Also, here are more specific directions to the place:

When you get to Paraiso, stay on the main road past the park and go straight rather than following signs to Turrialba. You will descend through coffee plantations down to Cachi dam. From there, follow signs to Tuccurrique and Pejibaye. In Pejibaye, go around the soccer field (football pitch) and head to the right. Stay on that road and watch for a sign to El Copal that tells you to make a sharp left over a bridge that crosses a small river. Follow that road and stay to the left where the road forks. Keep following it (fair birding along the way) and watch for a sign that shows the entrance to El Copal on the left.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to go birding because the place isn’t always open. Also, make reservations through Actuar to stay overnight because day trips seem to only be possible by taking a super expensive birding tour. Even if you don’t go to El Copal, though, you could still see a lot of good birds in forest patches along the road (rocky but doable even without four-wheel drive until just past El Copal).

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