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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

What’s the Deal with Yellow-billed Cotinga at Cerro Lodge

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.

You might see a Red-lored Parrot feeding next to the lodge.

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.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincon de Osa, the most reliable spot in the world for this species.

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.

The spot to look for the cotinga is just to the left of this image.

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.

This one showed up down the road from the lodge last week.
This species is quite the expert at putting a branch in between you and the camera.
and off it goes...

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.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

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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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges endangered birds lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Birding at Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica- a good site for Yellow-billed Cotinga

The Yellow-billed Cotinga is an endangered species that only occurs on the Pacific slope of  Costa Rica and western Panama. Although range maps in field guides show it occurring from the Rio Tarcoles (at and near Carara National Park) south to Panama, don’t expect to run into this cotinga at most sites along the coast because the actual distribution of this frugivore is much more spotty than is indicated. It’s localized distribution is due to it being restricted to areas where mangrove forest occurs near rain forest

Although records indicate that they wander in search of fruit, you are far more likely to encounter this species in the canopy of or close to mangroves. This is in contrast to its Caribbean slope cousin, the uncommon (but far from rare) Snowy Cotinga. Ranging from Honduras south to western Panama, the Snowy Cotinga isn’t too difficult to see in areas of lowland forest, forest edge, and riparian corridors. Although it has certainly declined because of deforestation, if one considers the paucity of Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings compared to encounters with Snowy Cotingas,  the Snowy appears to be weathering destruction of rainforests  much better than the Yellow-billed.

There appear to be very few sites where Yellow-billed Cotingas occur on a regular basis. Even in some areas with mangroves and rain forest (such as at Baru) they are either absent or extremely rare. Due to our near complete lack of information about the natural history of Carpodectes antoniae, no one really knows what this bird needs although its absence at sites such as Baru could possibly be explained by mangroves there not being old enough or the mangrove forests simply not being extensive enough to support a population of Yellow-billed Cotingas.

It should come as no surprise then, that their stronghold is in the extensive, old growth mangroves of the Sierpe River and Golfo Dulce areas of the Osa Peninsula. The mangrove forests in these areas are beautiful, old growth forests that echo with the songs of “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers, the screeches and squawks of parrots and macaws, and the piping calls of Common Black Hawks. The area around Rincon is where I saw my first Yellow-billed Cotingas in 1999. Foraging with Turquoise Cotingas in fruiting figs, their white plumage stood out against the evergreen rain forest on the nearby hills. On a side note, the birding at Rincon was fantastic with Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quails calling from the hillside, White-crested Coquettes foraging in flowering Inga sp., and well over 100 species recorded in a day.

Until recently I saw them on very few occasions elsewhere; a bird or two working its way up rivers in the Osa Peninsula, or very infrequent sightings in Carara National Park. Lately though, I have been seeing Yellow-billed Cotinga on just about every visit to Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations). The birds are from a population that nests in the mangroves near the Tarcol River. Although this population hasn’t been surveyed (admittedly a difficult task to undertake because they love the canopy and don’t sing), it’s probably very small and might only be composed of ten birds. This is pure speculation on my part but there are very few sightings of Yellow-billed Cotinga from Carara and vicinity (and most are of individual birds) despite there being a high number of birders and guides that work in the area.

At Cerro Lodge, I and others, have seen one male perched in a distant snag at the edge of the mangroves. It (or a different male) also sometimes comes closer to the lodge. The bird is usually so far away that it is difficult to see without a scope but is easy to pick out because of its brilliant white plumage.

The view from the restaurant where the male Yellow-billed Cotinga has been regularly seen. If you visit Cerro Lodge, you might see it by scanning all of the treetops from here.

I have also seen a female perched in a tree near the parking lot for Cerro Lodge, and a male was recently seen just down the road as it descends to the flood plain of the river. As Cerro Lodge is located somewhat near the Tarcol River, and based on other observations of this species, I suspect that the birds are foraging in the riparian growth along the river, or are using the river as a corridor to forage in the forests of Carara.

Luckily, the female was very cooperative and let me take a bunch of pictures.

For the past few years, the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre have been doing surveys for Yellow-billed Cotingas and are also involved with other studies of this highly endangered species. To help with its conservation, what is needed now are more studies that can help elucidate its natural history, as well as better protection of mangrove forests and rain forests in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. To help with conservation of Yellow-billed Cotinga, follow the link to Bosque del Rio Tigre and contact them. Also, if you see this species, please email me your notes on where you saw it, the time of year, the habitat it was using, and its behavior (especially foraging). Who knows-maybe there are certain fruiting trees that can be planted that would help this species.

Although Yellow-billed Cotingas has been regular at Cerro Lodge, these may be sightings of just 1-3 individuals. I suspect that there are so few of this species in the Carara area because there is so little habitat between the mangroves and the national park. In contrast to when rainforest adjacent to the mangroves likely provided food and cover for a number of Yellow-billed Cotingas (as at Rincon de Osa where several have been seen together), once that forest was converted into stark pasture, the few fruiting trees left near the mangroves supported far fewer (if any) cotingas, and birds were required to move around more in search of food (with a subsequent higher degree of nest failure and mortality as a result).

Although land owners in the area can’t be expected to reforest their pastures, hopefully, they will be willing to accept the planting of various fruiting trees used by this rare species.