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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

Visit The New Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe when Birding Costa Rica

Cinchona is known in Costa Rica as the town that was destroyed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake on January 9th, 2009. Most structures in that quaint town and the surrounding area collapsed, landslides wiped out large sections of route 126, and more than 30 people lost their lives. Birders were especially familiar with the area around Cinchona because of several birding sites situated along route 126. Virgen del Socorro was one of the most famous sites as it was an excellent area for middle elevation birds of the Caribbean Slope and the most reliable place in Costa Rica for seeing Lanceolated Monklet.

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Virgen del Socorro before the earthquake.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens were another site that was frequented by birders and many tourists, but the crown jewel for birding were two cafes with serious hummingbird action and fruit feeders that attracted both species of barbets, tanagers, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, and others. The abundance of birds, friendly owners, and lack of an entrance fee made those cafes a welcome, requisite stop when taking this scenic route to the Sarapiqui area.

All of these places were unfortunately very close to the epicenter of the quake and were severely damaged or seemed to have just disappeared. The road also vanished in places (it ran along the fault line that caused the quake) and it looked as if those classic birding sites were gone for good. More than two years later, I am happy to report that this is not the case. The Waterfall Gardens were back up and running a matter of months after the earthquake, and major improvements have been made to route 126. On a trip to the area last weekend, we were surprised to see how much work had been done on the road. Although it still lacks pavement, it has been widened and graded for at least half of its length and it looked like road crews were fixing up the other half as well. Although the upper section wasn’t officially open, many cars (including two wheel drive vehicles) and public buses are using it.

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Wide, graded road.

Habitat isn’t as good as it used to be along the lower parts of the road but there are some promising areas on the upper section that produced birds such as Dark Pewee, Tufted Flycatcher, a flyby Chiriqui Quail-Dove (!), Barred Becard, Red-faced Spinetail, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and other expected middle elevation species during visits in February. You can also visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens to watch an abundance of hummingbirds and see their “zoo” of rescued animals but to be honest, the $35 per person entrance is too steep of a price to pay for birding in my opinion, and especially so because you can see the same species at other sites in the area.

One of these is the new Hummingbird Cafe. It appears to be located on or near the same spot as the former and might be run by the same people. It is much smaller and a shadow of its former birding glory but it’s still worth a stop. On a visit last weekend, the following hummingbird species came to their three feeders: Violet Sabrewing, Green Violetear, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. Most of these were single birds and there wasn’t a huge amount of action but I still got some ok shots and other species probably show up from time to time.

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Green Thorntail

birding Costa Rica

Green Violetear

birding Costa Rica

Green-crowned Brilliant (female)

We also had a White-crowned Parrot that perched on a snag and showed off its colors.

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Virgen del Socorro was visible down below and a road could be discerned that descended into the gorge but as far as we could tell, it was only accessible from the other side of the river. Despite being very familiar with the entrance road to Virgen del Socorro, I failed to find it. I still hope it’s there but strongly suspect that it was more or less destroyed. Perhaps the forested gorge at Virgen del Socorro can still be visited from the village of the same name on the other side of the river? I fear that much habitat was destroyed by earthquake spawned landslides and floods but it would be nice to see if the monklet is still around as well as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them there in the past and they were also seen on rare occasions).

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds preparing for your trip

The El Tapir Hummingbird Hotspot has Been Destroyed

Update about El Tapir- Since I wrote this post, happily, the Porterweed bushes have grown back and the place is still great for Snowcap and other hummingbird species. When I wrote this. it didn’t seem likely because every bit of green in the garden looked herbicided, brown, and dead. Current entrance fee is $12 and also includes use of the trails. The forest is excellent foothill birding but be careful about the high number of small ticks on the trails.

El Tapir was this fantastic birding site in Costa Rica that mysteriously became defunct about ten years ago. Situated a few kilometers after Quebrada Gonzalez along the highway that connects San Jose and Limon, it provided access to foothill forests that buffer Braulio Carrillo National Park. There were a couple of trails into this beautiful, mossy habitat, one of which led to a stream where you could see Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

On the way to the stream, there were amazing mixed flocks, Dull-mantled Antbird, and all the other foothill specialties. I also saw my best antswarm in Costa Rica along that trail- although the ground-cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpittas had apparently taken the day off or were competing with each other in a skulking contest,  everything else was there. By everything, I mean Barred Forest-Falcon, Rufous Motmot, Striped Woodhaunter, Song Wren, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and those stars of the show: Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, and the fastidiously clean Immaculate Antbird. At one time, this latter species was known as Zeledon’s Antbird. That’s the name I learned in the decades old Irby Davis field guide for Central America and I kind of wish that name would come back because it has such a ring to it- rather like the name of a rapper or a a foe of Conan the Barbarian.

“Who’s that imposing, musclebound, hooded guy with the blue paint around his eyes?” asks one of Conan’s temporary sidekicks.

To which Conan replied, “Crom! That be my foe ZELEDON! The prophets say that one day a feathered one that follows army ants will be named after him.”

“Huh?!” (it was some centuries or ages before the idea of birding for fun was invented)

“Oh never mind. The prophets are always spouting nonsense anyways- saying things like one day people will watch birds through magic eye pieces. If I weren’t a barbarian, I would laugh in a hearty, good-natured manner at such a silly idea instead of doing my usual hoarse, hacking guffaws heavy with the effects of mead. Enough! Time to challenge ZELEDON!….”

Anyways, El Tapir was one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica and it probably still is but the nets of the butterfly garden have fallen into mold-patched disarray, the buildings are empty and probably home to hordes of scorpions, and the trails probably aren’t trails anymore. Cabins were also being built but were never completed. If they would have been finished, I tell you this would have ranked among the best accommodations for birding in Costa Rica. I have no idea what happened but suspect that it had something to do with that evil and insane affliction of governments called bureaucracy or that the money ran out.

So the El Tapir began to resemble some haunted place in the tropics that had started out as a bastion of hope and sunshine until the decay of the jungle slowly worked its natural, nefarious magic via the vectors of disease, itchy fungus, and eventual madness until the survivors ran for their lives…BUT the bold and courageous hummingbirds carried on (well, they were always there but someone has to play the hero in this story and because barbarians aren’t allowed to be heroes, hummingbirds are the chosen ones)!

Formerly trimmed patches of Porterweed exploded with flowers and took over the abandoned gardens and grounds. For hummingbirds, this was nothing short of trick or treating in rich neighborhoods while Halloween just repeats itself day after day after day.

Green Thorntail birding Costa Rica

Green Thorntails buzzed around like a swarm of bees.

Snowcap birding Costa Rica

Snowcaps set up shop.

Violet-headed Hummingbird birding Costa Rica

Violet-headed Hummingbirds moved into the neighborhood.

The place became a veritable supermarket for the Colibridae, a metropolis for small nectar feeding creatures, and a jackpot for hundreds of birders who have popped in to get their lifer Snowcap or take photos.

HOWEVER, all of that changed sometime during the past two weeks.

During a day of birding Quebrada Gonzalez with Michael Retter and Alan Knue (they were down in Costa Rica for two weeks of scouting out bird sites for tours and getting Talamancan lifers), we scooted over to El Tapir to get more looks at Snowcaps (you can never get enough of that bird) and maybe glimpse a Black-crested Coquette when we came upon a strange sight.

The overgrown hummingbird hotspot looked oddly clear and upon closer examination, all of the Porterweed bushes appeared to be dying! Aside from a Green Hermit that happily zipped around from heliconia to heliconia, there were no other hummingbirds! It was a good thing that Michael and Alan had seen loads of Snowcaps two weeks before because on Saturday, there was almost nothing. Nary a Snowcap. Not even a Rufous-tailed. None. Nada. Zilch.

We could only surmise that whomever was taking care of the place had finally decided to eliminate the flowering bushes that were so delectable to dozens of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds will hopefully find food elsewhere but birders hoping for a quick and easy Snowcap at El Tapir will from now on be out of luck.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations sites for day trips

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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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations

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.