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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.