29 May – 1 June 2014
Tapanti National Park is situated in the Orosi Valley, not far from San Jose. The drive to Tapanti takes you through small towns and “shade” coffee plantations. I say shade in quotes because many of the plantations were shaded with non-native eucalyptus, a species of tree that provides little value to birds. To me it seems shameful that this type of coffee can be sold as shade grown. The coffee plantations melt away in your rearview mirror as you enter a side valley surrounded by the steep beautifully forested hillsides of Tapanti National Park.
Tapanti protects 144,000 acres of mid- and upper-elevation forest in the Talamanca Range, and the area is connected to other national parks and forests all the way to the Panama border, perhaps the largest remaining forest in Central America. With so much forest all around nearly anything is possible here, which makes for some very exciting birding.
Tapanti is a known location to find two species of Antpittas (Scaled and Ochre-breasted). With this in mind, I could hardly wait to get out on the trails and hoped that we might encounter one hopping about in the pre-dawn light. It’s no secret … I love Antpittas! How could you not love a little ball of feathers that hops around on the forest floor? Aside from being, well, just cute, Antpittas also have some very interesting behaviors. Thicket, Streak-chested, and some other Antpittas fill their bellies with air and their bellies bounce like a bowl full of jelly when they sing. Ochre-breasted Antpittas, however, are a little different from their cousins and instead of spending all of their lives hopping on the forest floor, they are frequently encountered off the ground flying between low perches. Ochre-breasted Antpittas also have a habit of slowly and gently swaying their bodies back and forth. It is almost like they are doing the twist.
Having made arrangements the prior afternoon for an early entry, the first morning we started out on the Oropendola trail at sunrise and crept slowly through the dark forest understory hoping to get lucky with a Scaled Antpitta foraging in the path. We walked the loop twice and excitedly grabbed our binoculars for many Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes hopping in the trail, but had no luck with Scaled Antpitta. Despite ranging from southern Mexico to central Bolivia, Scaled is one of the more difficult Antpittas to see, never being terribly common and as well almost never vocalizing. We have had very fleeting looks at disappearing Scaled Antpittas three times now but have yet to actually see the bird. Despite a pitta-less morning we encountered some great mixed-species flocks both along the Oropendola trail and along the road. Highlights from our first morning included Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Green Thorntail, Spotted Barbtail, Dark Pewee, Red-headed Barbet, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Mountain-Gem, and more (eBird list).
Tapanti is also a great location to see Black-bellied Hummingbird, which we encountered in a bunch of flowering trees along the Oropendola trail and is fairly common throughout the park. We also had a pretty good day of raptors and spotted Barred Hawk, Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-tailed Hawk, and a very distant Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
We again made arrangements for an early entrance and arrived at 5:00 am expecting the gates to be open. Unfortunately the ranger we had spoken with apparently forgot to relay the message. We did not get into the park until 5:30 and were a bit anxious because we were missing the best pitta hours. As soon as the gate opened we quickly headed to the Sendero Arboles Caidos (Fallen Trees trail) to search for more Antpittas and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes who like steep mid-elevation hillsides and are known to hang out on this trail. We started up the steep trail and, not surprisingly, it was fairly quiet in thick primary forest on a steep hillside in the dark. We didn’t get any birds in the path, but soon enough Josh heard what he thought was the call of an Ochre-breasted Antpitta! The call is very similar to the far, far more common Paltry Tyrannulet but this sounded pretty good. I was ecstatic! Ochre-brested Antipitta! Yahoo! We briefly played the call of the Antpitta and got a quick response. Within just a minute or two an Ochre-breasted Antpitta was spotted flitting around in the understory. It perched briefly and started swaying side to side while we tried to record and take photos of the half-pint sized pitta doing the twist. Seeing the Ochre-breasted Antpitta was just plain awesome! I wish we could have taken some videos but hand holding a 400 mm lens is pretty challenging and the light was still very dim inside the forest.
After we recovered from our excitement we continued up the steep and slippery trail. We had not gone more than another 200 meters when we heard another Ochre-breasted Antpitta, this time much closer! I started looking in the direction of the sound and instantly found an Ochre-breasted Antpitta with a piece of fern in its mouth less than 5 m from me. Even with the fern in her mouth it was twisting side to side and calling. Soon we heard another Ochre-breasted Antpitta calling from just across the trail. I tried to follow the Antpitta to the nest site but lost it along the way. Either way, it was exciting to encounter a pair and awesome to know that they are nesting nearby. Josh got some amazing photos … simply amazing!
Later on down the trail we heard a Rufous-breasted Antthrush and with patience found it strutting its fairly chicken-like stuff across the forest floor. The Antthrush eluded the photographer, but we still got great looks. Near the top of the trail we encountered an excellent mixed-species flock that was unfortunately uphill and doing a good job of staying obscured, but we did pull out a pair of Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners, a rather rare species in Costa Rica. What an amazing day! Not one, not two, but THREE Ochre-breasted Antipittas, a Rufous-breasted Antthrush, AND a pair of Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners. Tapanti is a spectacular birding destination and should not be missed. A bit higher up the canyon, near the waterfall, are some excellent vantage points and we had great looks at swifts, including Chestnut-collared and White-collared, though there is probably a great chance for White-chinned or Spot-fronted here and swifts at eye-level should always be studied closely! Check out our eBird list to see what other species we saw (eBird list).
Directions for Tapanti are described in the Costa Rican bird finding guide and Tapanti is easily birded with a 2-wheel drive car. If you are looking to bird Tapanti on the cheap and get into the park before it opens at 8 am, we recommend staying at Finca Los Maestros (9.76727, -83.78986) only 800 meters or so from the park entrance. Look for a small sign on the left side of the road that goes up a steep drive just after a turn in the road before the park entrance. Finca Los Maestros rents out a few basic rooms with cold water showers and also allows camping (1500 Colones/US $3 per person). They also have a small restaurant (soda) and a trout farm if you are looking for food. The owners are incredibly friendly and this is a great place if you aren’t looking for luxury. To gain access to the park before it opens, stop by the park entrance the day before and ask permission to bird the trails at sunrise. Permission was freely given for us to enter at 5 am two days in a row, but be sure to arrive before 4 pm, when the park closes, to ask permission.
The next to last Caribbean slope birding destination for us was Reserva El Copal. We head read about El Copal in the bird finding guide and several people recommended that we visit El Copal. We could hardly wait to get there. It sounded so amazing and indeed it was absolutely amazing! El Copal is located on the Caribbean slope east of Tapanti National Park. The area was originally purchased by a group of people from the small community, Humo, who were interested in farming the land. However, after they purchased the land they realized that the land was much too steep and not at all suitable for farming so they decided to preserve the land and create a small-scale ecotourism business. El Copal has very comfortable rooms with hot showers, electricity¸ internet, and is set amongst some of the best mid-elevation Caribbean slope forest Costa Rica has to offer. The lodge is basic but comfortable and the food is some of the best we had in all of Costa Rica. Patricia and Don Beto are super friendly and you get the feeling of family when they sit down to eat every meal with you.
Still on the hunt for a reasonable look at Scaled Antpitta we woke up at 4:00 am to be out on the trails before sunrise, when Antpittas can, with luck, be seen hopping on the trails. The trails at El Copal are a bit wider and are well maintained, but with still a bit of vegetation here and there in the trail and lots of leaf litter, making for great visibility and a real chance for seeing a rare bird in the path. The dawn chorus was a cacophony of sounds, making it difficult to discern who was who as we snuck around trail corners, peering up the dim trail. The early morning quickly faded to late morning and no pittas crossed our path but we had absolutely amazing mixed-species flocks all morning long (and lots of rain all afternoon). The mixed-species flocks at El Copal are pretty good and the hold the possibility of seeing many rare birds including Gray-headed Piprites, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Sharpbill and more. To give an idea of the potential, Beto has even seen Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at an antswarm. The first day we had three fantastic flocks with Speckled Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Bay-headed Tanager, and Black-and-Yellow Tanager foraging in the trees above (eBird list). After lunch the rain started pouring down so we caught up on some much needed sleep and headed out the next morning pre-dawn to once again search for Antpittas. Another pitta-less morning passed us by but the mixed-species flocks were even better than the day before. Along the Mariposa trail we had a giant mixed-species flock and heard the sharp rising song of the Sharpbill high in the canopy. We craned our necks scanning everything that moved for the Sharpbill but could not pull it out of the flock and then the flock was gone. We tried again after lunch to see if the flock would come back, but no luck with the Sharpbill. We did, however, find Tawny-chested Flycatcher, all of the expected Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Antwren, Plain Antvireo, Olive-striped Flycatcher, and our best looks yet at a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Along the loop trail we also came across Ocellated Antbird, Dull-mantled Antbird, tons of Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, White-throated Spadebill, and more (eBird list).
Our time at El Copal felt cut short because of the afternoon rains, but in the end we had 100 species without birding the garden or scrubby edges, and thoroughly enjoyed our time both in the lodge and in the forest!
El Copal, although not entirely off-the-beaten track, is a little less known and a little harder to get to. 4WD isn’t necessary unless it has rained a huge amount, and high clearance isn’t necessary, but it is a good ways on dirt roads and there are a couple of steep bits. This is absolutely some of the best birding on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and definitely warrants a visit. The modest prices, comfy accommodation, terrific food and really nice trails make it very worth the drive. To arrange a visit to El Copal, contact Actuar.