It was just a flash that caught my eye, high in a fruiting nutmeg tree.
9 Jan. 2018: I was out behind my cabina, doing my morning peruse of the primary rainforest that borders the garden when I noticed some fluttering high above me, in a tree mostly devoid of leaves. When I trained my binoculars on the form, the familiar shape of it made my heart leap, but I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. Kind of white, but not THAT white.
But then one flew into the adjacent, fruiting wild nutmeg tree and that’s when I let my heart soar..
It was what I believed to be a juvenile or female of the exceedingly rare, endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga.
Yellow-billed Cotinga is categorized as Endangered, due to a presumed rapidly declining population estimated to be between 250-999 and a tiny range of 1,700 km2 within the 38,000 km2 South Central American Pacific slope Endemic Bird Area (Stattersfield et al. 1998, BirdLife International 2013). Exact population figures are lacking, but decline is inferred from known deforestation, and the disappearance or decline in abundance of the species at known localities (Jones et al. 2014).
While it wasn’t the brilliant white male, I knew this species had only ever been spotted in this specific area for the very first time only just last year, in February of 2017. I remember being told they’d been seen congregated that time in another fruiting nutmeg on the property and that they seemed to travel in loose groups and kept pretty quiet overall.
It was about 0700 hours and I knew I was supposed to be at breakfast, being that I’m the intern resident bird guide and naturalist who’s supposed to be on duty. And I was running late. Except there was no way I was turning around and heading to breakfast right then far below these exceptionally rare creatures. I voice-messaged Saladero’s co-owner Susan via WhatsApp, telling her the phenomenal news. Before I knew it, I was joined by not just our guests but three lovely visitors we’ve been so fortunate to have come for a short stay, Andy Whitworth, Science Director of Osa Conservation and husband and wife powerhouse team from Nueva Tierra de Osa, Terri Peterson and Gary Strehlow.
And just about that moment was when a gleaming-white male came out from behind the leaves and landed out in the open for our viewing pleasure and my extreme excitement and satisfaction. The proof flew right out of the a lush green pudding (jajaja..)..
And let me emphasize again, these birds are highly endangered.
While their population is suspected to range between 250 and 999 individuals remaining in the world, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds website, the nomadic nature of these birds and the fact that their habitat is declining–there’s really no telling what their total remaining population count is for certain.
The reason these birds are in decline is attributed to illegal deforestation of rainforest and mangrove ecosystems, the both of which this species of cotinga critically rely upon. The yellow-billeds depend upon on healthy and intact mangrove forests for nesting, foraging and roosting. Unfortunately, this uniquely evolved, saline ecosystem happens to be in worldwide decline. Illegal cutting of native trees in lowland rainforests–which harbor fruit that these frugivorous birds forage upon–combined with declining mangrove ecosystems spell an uncertain future for the yellow-billed cotinga.
Furthermore, because of how rare it is to see these birds, there is still a great deal about this cotinga that is yet unknown, which is why it is so exciting to not just have seen them, but also to officially report these sightings along with photos to eBird.
A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.
eBird is accessible to the public through an app available through Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (to which you can download and submit your own bird sightings, rare or otherwise!). By adding information about the number of yellow-billed cotingas we saw, their location, the trees they were in and photographic evidence, we’re acting as true citizen scientist here, contributing data about a very rare species that is not very well known. With every new sighting we are able to learn more about a bird that is vastly in need of further information in order to possibly help in future protection of the species itself.
Of the three “white” cotingas species, the yellow-billed is endemic (specifically occurring only in limited, localized geographic areas) only to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica–including tucked right here into our beautiful corner of the rich Golfo Dulce– and they only range slightly into the extreme western corner of Panama. All of this, in total, amounts a truly tiny area. So here we are, a dot on the map of the world, and we can say, “Yes, this inestimable bird is here and, with our help and yours in protecting our precious-yet-diminishing rainforest and mangrove ecosystems, perhaps it could continue to be for all time.
We here at Saladero Ecolodge are proud that this vastly important, protected location–Saladero’s property includes 450 acres of protected primary rainforest–where the two habitats that these birds dearly depend upon converge, is once again able to announce the presence of this exceptional and highly rare species.
And their very presence speaks highly of the health and functionality of these intact local ecosystems that we help protect. And to be able to share these beautiful, natural spaces and rare sightings with our guests while informing them of the importance of maintaining and protecting these natural habitats is in keeping with our education-based system that coincides with being true to our name: Ecolodge. So to be able to share with others a never-to-be-forgotten experience, the sight of this incredibly rare, beautiful, snow-white bird, was beyond magical as we reveled in the sight of that proud, brilliantly gleaming male Yellow-billed Cotinga, as he faced the rising morning sun.
What a memory, one for the ages.
UPDATE: I’m thrilled to announce that our “resident” Yellow-billed Cotingas appear to be multiplying! But seriously, the gift just keeps on giving..and then some:
This morning I checked the same spot (they’d left yesterday after breakfast, both our breakfast and theirs, I guess!) and there were not just four, but very possibly more than EIGHT individuals!!
Many more males this time..I think the word has spread about this lovely fruiting nutmeg tree. Since the sighting, I’ve been in contact with Karen Leavelle, Director of Osa Birds: Research and Conservation and the woman responsible for creating a protected reserve for the yellow-billed cotinga.
Osa Conservation partnered with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, American Bird Conservancy, The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, and Osa Sounds to establish a reserve to protect one of the last strongholds on earth for the Yellow-billed Cotinga.
Karen informed me, “The cotingas are feeding on the aril of the nutmeg fruit, the outside coating only. The fruit is too hard for them to manipulate, but yes it is a favorite dish for them!” So inside the outer, orange seed casing, the brown nutmeg nut is covered by the aril, which is actually yet another of our kitchen spices, known as mace. The aril is a bright reddish-pink and looks like an octopus hugging the nutmeg nut. While the White-faced Capuchins monkeys will crack open the seed, discard the spicy mace and eat the nutmeg nut the cotingas, which aren’t bothered at all by the spice, enjoy it tremendously!
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