If you have birded the Carara area during the past seven years, are birding it some time soon, or would love to raise the bins in that birdy place at some treasured future time, then you have probably heard about Cerro Lodge. Read any recent birding trip reports from Costa Rica and there’s a fair chance that Cerro Lodge gets a mention. This is because it’s one of the only ecolodges within close striking distance of the national park, Black and white Owls sometimes hang out with you during dinner (not as regular as the past but they still show up from time to time), and the birding is pretty dang good.
One of the most special of bird species possible at Cerro Lodge is the Yellow-billed Cotinga. This peace dove looking bird from avian dreams is an endangered species (and may be close to being critically so), and only lives from the delta of the Tarcoles River south to around David, Panama. If that range wasn’t small enough, the bird also lives in a very specific and limited ecotone, that of mangroves and rainforest. Nope the picky species just can’t have one or the other. It needs both and they need to be close to each other.
At Cerro Lodge, you can actually see a male just about every morning as it displays on a distant bare tree in the mangroves. Although us birders are accustomed to focusing our eyes and bins on distant objects, in this case, the “distance” is kind of extreme. I’m not sure how far away that tree is, but the bird looks like an honest to goodness speck. If it weren’t snow gleaming white, we wouldn’t be able to see it all but luckilly (I guess), that bright light plumage lets us tick it off our lists albeit with a big fat BVD next to the sighting (no, not as in underwear; “better view desired”). It helps when the bird swoops from one branch to the next because then we know that we are looking at a bird and not some lost snowflake or trick of the eye.
So, the big question is, “Where does that bird go?” It doesn’t stay in the mangroves all day and probably moves to and from the park. At least that’s the theory since it has to go find food somewhere. Although it probably passes right through Cerro Lodge at some time or another, it seems that at least one male shows up around 200 meters down the road from the Cerro Lodge entrance from time to time.
The other main question is “How many live in the area?” Although the answer to that one is unknown, unfortunately, it’s probably “very few”. When Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre fame carried out surveys for Yellow-billed Cotinga, they estimated that there might be a dozen or less in the Carara area and that the population was, likely, slowly declining. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that this doesn’t add up to a happy future for this species at Carara. Take into account the increasingly dry climate around Cerro Lodge and the national park, and the future for this species around Carara isn’t nearly as bright as the cotinga’s plumage.
Reforestation in the much needed corridor seems unlikely (not impossible but those cows do need their pasture after all…) but the species probably wouldn’t survive in a drier climate in any case. Nevertheless, since I don’t have the time to do it myself, I hope that others can somehow keep this species going in the area because when we stop seeing a male or two displaying from that distant tree, Yellow-billed Cotingas at Carara will always be lost in the haze.
Birding in Costa Rica hasn’t been going on as long as watching for wood-warblers in Central Park, counting hawks at Cape May, or taking pictures of birds at Ding darling Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, we do have our own little set of classic sites and Virgen del Socorro is one of them. It earns “classic” status mostly because the rocky road into the forested canyon has felt the hiking shoes of hundreds of birders since the 1980s. I daresay that people have also birded the spot in the pre-history of Costa Rican birding (this would be pre-1989, the publication date for The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch).
Birders have visited Virgen del Socorro for years because it has offered easy access to some fine middle elevation birding. Although the 2009 Cinchona earthquake put a hiatus on visits and diminished the habitat, it is currently accessible and can still be great for a nice mix of foothill and cloud forest species.
Nevertheless, there is “another” Virgen del Socorro that deserves our attention. This “other” is really just the part of the road that goes from the northern side of the settlement and loops over to the main road to Sarapiqui just north of San Miguel. Since classic Virgen del Socorro birding is typically limited to birding in the canyon, most birders haven’t made it to this other nearby site. In fact, I wasn’t aware of it until a few months ago although I have wished that I could fly over to those forest from San Miguel every time I see them from afar.
Last weekend, I was finally able to check out the site for a morning of birding with faithful birding friend Susan. Here is a brief report and synopsis:
After crossing the mountains at Varablanca, we drifted downslope to pass the waterfall and Cinchona Cafe, eventually reaching the foothills and San Miguel around 6:30 am. We hadn’t made any real stops except at a service station where a Mourning Warbler popped out of a nearby bush. White-winged Doves were also present and a reminder that they are almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The entrance to the lower Virgen del S. loop is just after San Miguel and can be recognized by the semi-creepy presence of a cemetery.
The road is paved and takes a few curves down through farmland with scattered trees, lots of Social Flycatchers, and other common, edge species before reaching the first river.
As is required of anyone with binoculars, we searched the river rocks and boulders for a lurking tiger-heron or Sunbittern but despite seemingly ideal habitat, came up with zilch. The same thing happened at the next one or two rivers, one of which was the Sarapiqui. Although we failed on those river birds, they should show up. The rivers were also good places for watching the forest in the riparian zone although we didn’t see much at the big river.
At the most forested river ( a smaller one, I think it is the Rio Volcan), we had some birds. Actually, we had a lot and thanks to a major fruiting fig, only needed to stand in place and swivel back and forth to see dozens of species. This was a major rather than minor fruiting fig because it was big, filled with fruits, and jumping with birds. Yes, it was a veritable avian disco fruit fest with several Black-mandibled Toucans doing their best John Travolta. Their dance consisted of reaching with the beak to pick off a fig and gliding between branches as thrushes, tanagers (mostly common ones), and flycatchers rustled the dark green foliage. After 30 minutes of action, the birds were upstaged (and scared off) by eight hungry Spider Monkeys! This was a treat because this primate has become decidedly uncommon in many parts of Costa Rica.
When this happened, many of the birds rushed over to decorate the branches of a nearby bare tree. Most were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers but we also had several Golden-hoodeds, honeycreepers, and our only Plain-colored Tanager of the day. We also had our first of three White Hawks during the morning.
As the monkeys settled down, some birds came back but it looked like most weren’t going to be foolish enough to hang out with a bunch of hairy primates so we moved on up the road. On the side of the bridge, the road switchbacks up through some alright forest and I surmise that this part of the road in particular has a lot of potential. Although we didn’t get any results when playing the sound of the monklet at likely spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. Nor did we get any response from Black-crowned Antpitta but who knows? Maybe it could show up too if some ants came marching through. One indication of good habitat was a response from Ocellated Antbird, and we had a few other good birds further up the road.
Some of our best birding was on a straight road that dead ends at a small hydro project. Although there weren’t many places to pull off the road, it passes through nice forest, we had a lot of mixed flock activity, heard Black-headed Antthrushes kind of far off, and had killer looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
The eagle was calling down in a nearby canyon and since it was giving an atypical call, to make sure that it was an Ornate, and not a Black and White, I imitated the call to bring it into view. The bird complied and showed that it was indeed a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
After that high point, we followed the road to a point where there are steps that lead to a small overlook above the hydro project. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers reminded us that we were approaching the lowlands. We also had Fasciated Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and other lowland species on another side road that eventually led to unbirdy farmland. Continuing on up the main road to Virgen del Socorro (more signs!), we passed next to more forest and saw things like Crimson-collared Tanager, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Collared Aracari. This road eventually loses its pavement (and may require four wheel drive), then goes through flat, fairly deforested farmland before reaching the settlement of V. de Socorro but also passes by a small reservoir en route that had Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and one Ring-necked Duck.
One can keep following this road on up to the good middle elevation forests around Albergue del Socorro, or can follow it to the right and down through the classic V del Socorro canyon. We did a but of both, highlights being one or two White Hawks, heard only Barred Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon, and saw other expected species including Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.
The lower loop looks like a good one to take if birding Virgen del Socorro because it accesses forest at 500 meters elevation, goes through some nice habitat, and allows more views of rivers (not to mention our killer looks at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle). Check out this eBird list to see which birds we saw and heard.
Last week, I started out a day of guiding at El Tapir. We arrived just after dawn, the sky was overcast, and the old butterfly garden was jumping with birds. A group of Black-faced Grosbeaks fed on fruits in a low tree, Silver-throated Tanagers were flying back and forth, and Black and Yellow Tanagers (our only looks for the day) came to the edge of the canopy. Several Black-mandibled Toucans moved through the trees along with flock after flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.
Down in the flowers, in contrast to a visit just a week before, we had several species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Plumeleteer. The Rufous-taileds were still there but may have come out later in the day, and although the coquette was elsewhere, we did get a few Snowcaps! I don’t know where they had gone on other days, but on Friday, they were back, hopefully for good.
We ventured into the dark morning woods and heard a few birds but it was quieter than other days. Maybe they knew something we didn’t because not long after, it started to rain…and never stopped. We birded for a couple of hours from the shelter of the main building and did pick up a few other species during brief respites but the rain wasn’t going to stop. So, instead of hanging out in the same rain at Quebrada Gonzalez, we decided to head into the lowlands. My client still needed Keel-billed Toucan and maybe the weather would be better?
That turned out to be a lucky choice because, yes, we managed to escape the rain, got a couple of Keel-billeds at our first stop, and had serendipitous birding for the rest of the day. After seeing the toucans, we checked out the entrance road to La Selva around 10:30 am. It was extremely quiet but I had a hunch that would change. We eventually got some birds near the second entrance gate, the first being a Laughing Falcon perched over the road.
Not long after, we watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Long-tailed Tyrant and then bird activity exploded like a feather bomb. It wasn’t just the mixed flock I had hoped for but flyby parrots as well, the highlight being a pair of Great Green Macaws that perched in a nearby tree! We had been hearing the macaws as they slowly approached us and I hoped to see them fly past. Instead, they stopped and let us admire them as other species showed up in the surrounding trees.
As with a typical mixed flock experience, almost everything shows at once. Luckily, the birds weren’t streaming through the canopy, so we got good looks at most of them. I forget which bird started off the madness but things went something like this:
“Here’s a Fasciated Antshrike. White-collared Manakin. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Cocoa Woodcreeper calling. Yellow-billed Cacique in the open! Squirrel Cuckoo. Rufous-winged and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. Plain Xenops. Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Nice looks at Cinnamon Becard. Lesser Greenlet. Bay Wren in the open. Golden-winged Warbler. Never mind (the name we gave to Passerini’s Tanager). Buff-throated Saltator.”
We also managed to scope a few birds in the distance including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, before leaving for lunch. Regarding lunch, I thought that Rancho Magellanes would be a good choice. It’s a 10 minute drive from La Selva, not long after Selva Verde, and can turn up some good birds on the river. The forest canopy can also be scoped from the restaurant and they serve good food for good prices. Although we didn’t see any birds while eating, we were surprised by a Summer Tanager that flew down right next to us (one or two feet away). After it flew to a nearby perch, I put a french fry (chip) on the table and it immediately came down to snatch it. That was a first for me.
After lunch, we heard but did not see an Olive-backed Euphonia. However, that miss was quickly made up for by a male Snowy Cotinga perched right where it should be- at the top of a huge bare tree!
A good day so far and it wasn’t over yet. We went back to the entrance road and although the activity didn’t approximate that of the morning, we still saw quite a bit with several species coming to a fruiting fig (including euphonias we had missed), good looks at Gray-headed Kite and both tityras, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and heard all three tinamous. Yes, a good day indeed. I woud love to see how many species I could detect by birding along the entrance road and edge of La Selva at dawn.
Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.
This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.
It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.
We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:
It even caught a bug!
The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!