Most birders on their way to Costa Rica have a list of the species they want to see the most. These are the birds that we yearn to see, that we dream about, and that capitalize the “S” in satisfaction. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit too much but anyone who likes to keep a bird list and who has traveled to watch birds knows what I’m talking about. Although the birding purists may solemnly state that every bird is equal, I, um, beg to differ and counter that equating a Resplendent Quetzal or a Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a House Wren or (egads!) a House Sparrow is is simply bonkers. You see, that would kind of be like saying that Elvis Presley was equal to your average, bowling alley karaoke fanatic.
So, if you happen to be wondering what the heck mind blasting birds, the King of Rock and Roll, and karaoke have to do with Snowcaps, not to fret, I’m getting to that. You see, the Snowcap is rather like a pint-sized (maybe pin-sized) rep. for those extravagant birds that consistently make it onto lists of Costa Rica most wanted bird species. They might not come in the weird and wild shape of an umbrellabird or have glowing feathers that change color as the bird moves along with an over-long tail like a quetzal, but they make up for it with three main characteristics:
- The snow cap: Just like the name says, a male Snowcap has a snow white cap. But it’s really more than that. The white is so darn gleaming that one often sees this glowing white spot zipping around like some extra-dimensional creaturette rather than the bird itself. In fact, it just might be the closest thing to a real live Tinkerbell (except it’s a bird, can’t do magic, etc.).
- The purple body: Wait, is it purple? Mauve? Burgunday? Just what the heck is that color! Whatever it is, it’s a rare hue for anything avian and makes the male look like some extraordinary sculpture. How can it be that color? Why is it that color? Whether the female sees something that evades our vision abilities or not, it makes the male Snowcap one heck of a cool bird to watch!
- It’s a hummingbird: Hummingbirds are cool by default. Some of them look quite a bit like ornate feathered insects, they buzz around like teeny helicopters, and fight with other glittering hummingbirds over flowers patches. With such characteristics, I don’t know how anyone could not like hummingbirds.
Now that should give a fair idea of why the foothill dynamo known as the Snowcap is a must for many people on birding trips to Costa Rica. Unfortunately, though, there aren’t many accessible places to see them. Unlike hummingbirds that occur in middle elevation sites with many a feeder, the Snowcap is a dainty denizen of the Caribbean foothill zone. It won’t go higher than 800 meters and rarely makes it down to anywhere lower than 300 meters. Basically, this rich, limited habitat is right at the base of the mountains and perhaps due to its proximity to the flat lowlands, has been tragically razed in far too many places.
If you drive down past Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, you reach the foothill zone but what used to fantastic, wet rainforest has been converted to weedy cattle pastures. Go down most roads on the Caribbean slope and you will see the same, Snowcap-less pattern. Luckily, there are a few exceptions and these are the easiest, most accessible places to see this fantastic little bird in Costa Rica (and I dare say, elsewhere in its range):
- El Tapir: Located smack in the middle of excellent foothill forest at just the right elevation, this is by far, the easiest. most accessible spot for seeing the Snowcap. Go there and you have a good chance of seeing a few males, a few females, and maybe an immature or two. Not only is this site in the right place and is surrounded by a lot of habitat, it also has a garden overflowing with Porterweed (a bush loved by the Snowcap and many other hummingbird species), and is easily accessible along the main highway between San Jose and Limon. There’s no sign, though, so watch for the first little clearing with a couple of small buildings on the right (east side of the road) about 2 kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez. The caretaker charges $5. Snowcaps also occur at Quebrada Gonzalez but they are harder to see as they feed on flowers way up there in the canopy.
- Rancho Naturalista: This classic Costa Rican birding lodge is a reliable spot for the Snowcap. The guides will know which Porterweed bushes the birds have been visiting so you should see them here if you visit.
- El Copal: This community owned, basic eco-lodge is located between Rancho and Tapanti. The showers may be cold but the birding is excellent and Snowcaps are usually present at their (can you guess) Porterweed bushes!
- The road to Rio Celeste in Tenorio National Park: This is a fairly new road, it passes near excellent foothill forest, and I recently heard abut Snowcaps being seen there. If you don’t see any Porterweed, watch for a tiny hummingbird with white in the tail at any small flowers.
That’s about it! I’m sure there are some other sites for the Snowcap in Costa Rica but the four places listed above are the most accessible.