As you drive around the winding mountain roads of Costa Rica on your way to Monteverde, La Fortuna, or Sarapiqui, you won’t help but the notice signs that state “canopy here!” “longest canopy!”, and even “fly like superman on our canopy!” Some of these odd advertisements happen to be the size of billboards and also show smiling, helmet-wearing individuals who lie prone and with their arms stretched out as they apparently zoom through the air high above the ground. Before you come to the conclusion that these are tragic, photographic captures of deranged people moments before the laws of gravity dish out inevitable justice, or that they are some sort of abstract anti-drug message, your anxiety will be alleviated upon noticing that these people are actually attached to some sort of harness.
“So this must be the zipline thing”, you may say to yourself as you swerve to avoid yet another pedestrian. If you are a birder or biologist, you may also find yourself wondering what on Earth “canopy” has to do with “ziplining”. After all, isn’t the canopy that wonderful, mysterious, and mostly inaccessible part of the rainforest that harbors a big chunk of biodiversity? Isn’t it the arboreal realm of glittering cotingas, weird woodpeckers, and strange gliding herps? Of course the canopy is this and so much more which makes the hijacking of this term for an “adventure activity” a silly shame. Ziplining activities occur up there in the canopy but you don’t get the chance to investigate your surroundings while rushing through the treetops along a cable. No, to get a glimpse into the rainforest canopy, you need to get up there (preferably above the tree crowns) and just hang out. Scan the sea of trees with binoculars and don’t forget the scope to check out the distant raptors, parrots, and tanagers that also like to hang out in the treetops.
The 100 million colones question, of course, is “How does one manage to climb 100 feet or more up into the trees”? This is then quickly followed up by another question of equally high value: “And how do you avoid falling out of the tree once you get up there”? There is, however, one response that comfortably answers both of these questions: “a canopy tower”. With these awesome structures, you typically walk up a bunch of steps to access platforms at different levels of the forest which results in excellent views of a bunch of birds whose identification would have otherwise been a question of silhouettes and calls. As much as some of us birders like to be challenged, we always opt for the nice, easy views that a canopy tower provides. No more warbler neck, and you just might squeal with glee when Blue-headed Parrots fly too close for binoculars, Gray-headed Kites flap along at eye level, and especially when you have to ID tanagers by the pattern on their backs!
editors note- I’m not kidding about the “squeal with glee” thing. I have been witness to this and other, cruder exclamations of amazement at canopy towers in Tambopata, Peru.
The irony of all of this is that even though exploration of the rainforest canopy was pioneered in Costa Rica by David Perry, and Costa Rica is visited by thousands of birders, there aren’t any canopy towers! Ziplines have cropped up like an invasive plant and there are at least two tram rides that gondola you up into the canopy, but the nearest canopy tower has been the eco-lodge of the same name in Panama. This Costa Rican catch-22 has all changed, however, thanks to the San Vito Birding Club. Not willing to wait around for the national parks to build a canopy tower, they actually raised enough funds to build one of their own! I haven’t been there yet but this video shows what truly appears to a bona fide canopy tower ripe for birding!
It’s bound to be a good site for raptors, getting close looks at canopy flocks, and might turn out to be the most reliable site in the country for Turquoise Cotinga. So, if the excellent birding at the Wilson Botanical Garden wasn’t enough to merit fitting this site into your Costa Rican birding trip, it sure is now!