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Looking for Cotingas in the Rain

The rains have calmed down the past week or so. That doesn’t mean that the roaring precipitation has stopped and by no means should the sky tap actually be turned off. Water means life and the more the better! Well, maybe not to the degree of causing floods and landslides but yes, a steady series of downpours will work out fine. I see that rain coming down to smack the leaves and as always, I can’t help but wonder, how do birds deal? What do they do when it rains for hours? Do they get out and forage or do the tanagers and Russet Antshrikes hunker down to conserve energy and wait for their window of respite?

The Russet Antshrike is a common member of mixed flocks at many humid forest sites in Costa Rica, If you see a foliage-gleaner looking bird checking dead leaves in the canopy, it’s probably this species. 

I’m not sure what they do and it must vary by species but in general, it seems that most birds of forest and field get active when the heavy rains turn to mist; they seem to take advantage of that window when the pounding rain won’t drive them to the ground. As for raptors, it seems like they also take advantage of the almost dry window to use an exposed perch. Indeed, in such situations, I see Bicolored Hawk more often. Other birds can also perch in the open, some of them even doing so under the curtain of heavy tropical rains. It’s a good time to look for cotingas and not necessarily because you will find them, but because when it rains, there’s not a whole lot of other birding you can do. If it does pour, at least you can scope and scan the canopy from under a roof.

Bicolored Hawk perched in the rain.

This is basically what it takes to see some of the more esteemed and wanted members of this fantastic bird family. Although I would have to put the endangered and amazing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the top of the awesome cotinga list for Costa Rica, the four classic cotingas are still very much desired and not just by those who travel to Costa Rica for birding. Those of us who live in Tiquicia want to see Snowy, Yellow-billed, Lovely, and Turquoise Cotingas just as badly and many a local birder has yet to lay eyes on any of these fab four. And even if you have admired the four classic canopy dwellers, they still get priority because you just can’t get enough of those cool birds. They look too weird and wonderful to not get excited about the prospect of seeing them, and, we just don’t see them that often.

Such a cotinga situation keeps me looking for them, keeps my eyes on the highest points of trees, keeps me looking for trees with cotinga food. And, especially when I’m birding with special people who have yet to see these local beauties. Recently, I have kept an eye out for cotingas on the Caribbean slope, rain or shine (I guess mostly rain). Whereas most birders in Costa Rica get a good visual taste of cotingas at the Rincon bridge, the duo on the Caribbean side of the country are much more evasive. Head south of Limon and the Snowy becomes much less of an issue but the Lovely is always rare, no matter where you bring the binos. Given its eye-catching appearance, I guess the shining blue and purple thing should be rare. Yes. Shiny and blue as Cheyenne turquoise, ornamented with amethyst. I have only seen it twice, I’d like to see it again! Most of all, I’d like to admire the bird with someone who likewise feels that cotingas are fantastic.

I have looked lately but not quite enough. Checking the treetops in the Sarapiqui area has so far failed to turn up any bright white birds. I drive through the rain and steal glances at the tops of every tree in range. I’ve seen a few other things; parrots, oropendolas, sloths, and caracaras, but no Snowy Cotinga. In the Socorro area, I have made a few concerted attempts to find a Lovely. The extensive canopy views are right and so is the elevation and timing but the birds are rare and I haven’t put in the many hours likely necessary to connect.

A good place to look for Lovely Cotingas.

But, there’s hope in cotingaland! Although the Snowy has certainly declined in Sarapiqui, it’s still around, if we keep looking, we will find it perched high in the rain, hopefully drying in the sun. As for the Lovely, I did notice fig trees beginning to fruit around Socorro including one massive tree that might even be hosting a living doveish jewel as I write this. I hope to check it tomorrow. I won’t be able to spend hours watching and waiting for the cotinga but the blue and purple bird has to be visiting that tree at some point, maybe even calling it its new temporary home. I’ll be there to check it, at least for a bit. If I see it, I’ll share the gen. on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter because everyone should have a chance to see a cotinga, especially one of the lovely kind.

Want to learn more about finding cotingas and the best places to see them in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing the 700 page plus e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

An Impressive Day of Birding around Poas

Poas Volcano is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Buses, cars, and even bicycles make the long, uphill trek to Poas National Park every day of the year, weekends being especially popular. Despite the lines of folks who undertake the Poas pilgrimage, very few are birders. They are there for the volcano and they walk up to the edge of the crater to peer down into its sulphury depths and feel as if they have accomplished something. I shouldn’t chide them though because looking into an active volcano is always a feat worthy of effort and mention. It’s a spectacular view on clear mornings and a surreal experience when the clouds roll in to shroud the crater from peering eyes. Definitely worth a visit and especially because it’s an easy hour’s drive from the San Jose area.

Nevertheless, after you get that look into the mouth of the volcano, it’s worth your while to bird the area for the rest of the day. Heck, it might even be worth your while to bird the area for a week! Although Poas and surroundings don’t really find their way into most birding tour itineraries, the general area is much better for birding than most people realize. Not convinced? You might be after reading about yesterday’s guiding in the area:

After picking up Lisa (she who so graciously hired me to guide her) from Casa Tias in Escazu (wonderful bed and breakfast by the way), we wound our way up the flanks of Poas until reaching the Restaurant de Volcan. The lack of shoulders on Costa Rican roads prevented us from doing any roadside birding in the coffee plantations on the way up but we still managed to get fantastic, close looks at a Coyote. Up at the restaurant, the usual set of hummingbirds were doing their thing at the feeders. In a matter of seconds, we watched Violet Sabrewings, Magnificent (Rivoli’s) Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, Green Violet-ears, Volcano Hummingbirds, and Green-crowned Brilliants as they chased each other around and guzzled sugar water.

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The wonderfully bold and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

While watching the hummingbirds, a Resplendent Quetzal began to call and before we knew it, a male flew across the road in deep bounding flight! It wasn’t all that close but the combination of beryl upperparts and red-velvet unders was evident. Shortly thereafter, we watched the following species coming to the edge of the forest in quick succession:

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Prong-billed Barbet- from another day of birding at Poas and Cinchona.

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Mountain Elaenia- one of the most common species there.

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Close encounters of the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher kind!

Black-thighed Grosbeak- what a hefty, beautiful bird.

We also picked up Band-tailed Pigeon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Yellowish Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and heard some distant (and therefore invisible) Barred Parakeets and a Flame-colored Tanager.

After buying some sugary stuff from the restaurant and listening the owner tell us about finding Mountain Lion scat up the hill across the street, we headed over to Varablanca to look for birds on the road that leads to Cinchona (and eventually the Sarapiqui lowlands). As it began to rain, I decided that we might as well check another forested riparian zone on the route that goes past Varablanca and eventually leads down to Santa Barbara. Although the Slaty Finches that were present a few weeks ago had apparently flown the coupe, we still managed excellent looks at Ochraceous Wren and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and saw a few more Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. As it started to clear up, we left with high hopes to bird our way to Cinchona.

A few stops in places with the necessary combination of a spot to park the car and roadside forest resulted in a couple of small mixed flocks with highlights being Barred Becard, Dark Pewee, and Yellow-winged Vireo. Near the Peace Lodge, we also got more, ridiculously close looks at Slate-throated Redstarts, Paltry Tyrannulet, and the most confiding Ruddy Pigeon of my birding career.

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This Ruddy Pigeon even had the decency to vocalize and reveal its name!

Down at the La Paz waterfall, we made a brief stop to check for Torrent Tyrannulet. As I scanned the boulders in the rushing water, Lisa asked, “What’s this bird over here in the garbage?” Sure enough, there was our tyrannulet playing around in some random piece of plastic trash. We ticked the “trashy” tyrannulet and moved on. After being unsuccessful in our attempt to see a singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (but picking up Yellow-bellied Elaenia in the process), we drove on past the Cinchona Cafe de Colibries to check out a birdy area between there and Virgen del Socorro.

This turned out to be a fateful decision.

I parked across the street from the Eucalyptus patch that frequently turns up good birds and sure enough, as soon as I exited the vehicle, a Tufted Flycatcher called and a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang from down in the woods. As I pulled out my playback device to see if we could entice that beautiful orange-eye-ringed bird to show itself, another bird in flight caught my eye and I automatically raised my bins to check it out. Although my first impression was of a Blue-gray Tanager or maybe Clay-colored Thrush that was flying away from me against a white, cloudy background, I stayed on the bird because I wasn’t entirely sure of its identification. As soon as it flew against a backdrop of green vegetation, it transformed into a flying chunk of turquoise and as it swooped up to the top of a tree, I heard myself saying, “Cotinga! Lovely Cotinga!” I think this was followed up by “Do you see it? This is a very rare bird!” After hearing Lisa say that she was on it, I sprinted back to the car for my scope (this of course being the only time I left it in the car). Just after getting the scope out, I then heard Lisa say, “It flew” so, there will be no photo of Lovely Cotinga on the blog today. So close..so close..

Nevertheless, I was pretty happy to see the bird and even happier that Lisa got to see this rarity. In case you are wondering how rare Lovely Cotinga is in Costa Rica, this was only the second time I have ever seen this species, the first being a female at Las Heliconias in April, 2001.  Even that was one of the few times it has been seen at that excellent site and I know one top CR birder who didn’t see his first Lovely Cotinga until birding in the country for maybe 20 years (?) and he spends most of his time in the field.

Elated by our good if brief sighting of Lovely Cotinga, we then watched beautiful Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers in the same area along with a much duller female Hepatic Tanager and an electric Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. By the time we saw the dacnis, lunch was calling so we headed back to the Colibri Cafe and enjoyed sumptuous home-cooked food while being entertained by several hummingbirds, including two new ones for the day: Coppery-headed Emerald and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

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The dacnis…it’s electric! -Think of that the next time you are forced to do the Electric Slide at a wedding.

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The uncommon White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Since it started to rain, we hung out there for a while and picked up Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Palm Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch before braving the downpour to head back uphill over a horribly pot-holed and rain-channeled road that we shared with other cars, buses, and hefty trucks. On a side note, sadly, I don’t think that I will be taking that road again until it gets fixed. It’s really gotten that bad!

Although the rain showed no sign of abating, we headed way uphill to the national park entrance in the hope that it would be maybe sprinkling as opposed to pouring. The rain was actually somewhere in between so we looked a bit around there before giving up and slowly driving back down through the temperate rainforests. As the rain lightened, the birds made themselves known and it wasn’t long before we were shielding bins from falling water while looking at a  Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

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The oriolish, beautiful Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

Further downhill, to our great fortune, the rain came close to stopping at a roadside spot that often yields good stuff. Sure enough, we picked up Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, Mountain Thrush, and Fiery-throated Hummingbird. While peering into the depths of a fruiting avocado, we then managed to see a Black Guan!  Before long, a Resplendent Quetzal also started to call! Although it sounded far off at first, we quickly realizes that it was quite close and in a matter of minutes, we were watching our second male Resplendent Quetzal of the day! Much better looks at this one as it sang from its perch. Although it had already molted its long tail feathers, the rest of the bird was still much appreciated.

Another drive back up to the park entrance in search of Sooty Robin and Large-footed Finch didn’t bag those birds but we did get nice looks at Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. That would have been our final bird of the day if it weren’t for a Gray-headed Chachalaca that planed over the car while heading back down into the Central Valley. We got more than 80 species for the day, one that will surely be a memorable one for Lisa. Since she is headed to Bosque del Rio Tigre today, she’s in for some pretty memorable times there too!

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The Best Sites for Seeing Cotinga Species when Birding Costa Rica

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.

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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.

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A glowing male Turquoise Cotinga from Talari Mountain Lodge.

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This one was at Rincon de Osa. One often sees both Yellow-billed and Turquoise at this site.

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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!

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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.