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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?

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Introduction

Gray-rumped Swift – Another Endemic for Central America?

Bird migration is happening, it’s probably good that I don’t live on the Caribbean coast. Not only would it be a challenge for my northern, cold-bred self to become accustomed to constant high levels of humidity, but with so many birds migrating through, it would be even more of a challenge to get anything accomplished. How not to run outside and see a river of raptors? How not to stop looking at the thrushes, warblers, and mesmerizing flocks of Eastern Kingbirds. Which flock might host a rare Gray Kingbird? An even rarer Couch’s or Cassin’s? And the thousands of Hirundines? Forget about it!

Somewhere up there with the massive Purple Martin movements is a Sinaloa Martin. The stream of swallows might host a few lost and adventurous Violet-greens, maybe even an insanely vagrant Asian swift. Unlikely, but not entirely out of the question because with so many thousands of birds being funneled through Costa Rica, lost Asian birds following their instincts south would probably also pass this way.

Identifying some mid blowing mega like that would require an extreme degree of luck but with constant monitoring of migrating Hirundines, there would be a slim chance. Although we lack such focused counting of migrating swallows and swifts at the moment, at least there are a fair number of birders in the field. Always out there, always watching, and unlike pre-digital days, most have cameras!

It turns out that Cave Swallows are an uncommon but regular migrant in Costa Rica.

I hope we will eventually have more extensive counting of migrating birds in Costa Rica but in the meantime, there are plenty of other birds to focus on. Today, we take a closer look at the Gray-rumped Swift (Chaetura cinereiventris).

No, doesn’t look like much but at least this image is honest with how swifts are often seen. This is a Gray-rumped Swift from Costa Rica.

The common Chaetura (small, stubby tailed swifts) of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills, the Gray-rumped Swift is easily seen at any number of sites. These are the small groups of swifts that fly over the canopy at the La Selva biological station, the small dark swifts with pale rumps that zip overhead, are then marked down, and then subsequently ignored.

I can’t blame fellow birders for paying less attention to swifts; I am likewise guilty of taking the bins down from looking at many of these birds. When the swifts are way up there (which they often are) and in poor light (ditto), and are not vocalizing (not nearly enough), you would be fooling yourself if you didn’t call many of them Cypseloides sp. or even Chaetura sp. (because Vaux’s can range into the lowlands and look way more like Chimneys than we might admit).

The good thing about Gray-rumpeds is that they fly low enough to see that they are darkish, nearly blackish swifts with delineated or well-marked pale rumps. I might be fooling myself (and with swifts that’s almost a given) but I also have this impression that their wings are shorter than Vaux’s. Yeah, probably fooling myself but they definitely have shorter wings than the Chimney Swifts that share their sky space.

The other cool thing about Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America is that they very likely represent a separate, distinct species. Yes, one more endemic for the land bridge between North and South America! Maybe not but molecular studies published in 2018 revealed a whopping 6.2% difference between the subspecies that occurs in Central America and at least three subspecies of Gray-rumped Swifts found in South America. See this link for figures of phylogenetic trees.

Although they look rather similar, such high molecular differences are seriously telling and regarding phenotypical differences, Chaeturas don’t exactly stand out from each other anyways. As for vocalizations, although similar, to my ears, there appear to be differences in structure and maybe pitch from South American birds.

I am guessing that more data are needed to make an adequate proposal to separate the phaeopygos subspecies of Gray-rumped Swift, especially because birds in South America might also represent additional species (?) but given that large difference in mDNA, it sure looks like Gray-rumped Swifts in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and western Panama represent a cryptic species. Even if they were still retained as a subspecies, this bird would still act as one more example of Central America acting as an evolutionary hotspot. Watch those swifts!

On October 13th, Josh Beck mentioned that the occidentalis subspecies of western Colombia and western Ecuador was not included in the phylogeny. Since occidentalis includes two disjunct populations, phylogenies including both of these would be needed to further elucidate any conclusions about the Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America.

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Birding Costa Rica migration

Morning Orioles in Costa Rica

I love seeing posts from the Morning Flight Working Group Facebook page, the virtual space where birders, field ornithologists, post reports and images of diurnal bird migration. Although most small birds migrate at night, many keep on moving in the early morning either to get in a few more miles or to find appropriate habitats. Reports that document such avian movements offer exciting glimpses into bird migration from a number of places including Cape May, New Jersey, southern Arizona, and the shores of England. They help me learn, check out cool pictures of birds in flight, and live vicariously; some mornings are simply incredible.

Hundreds of American Redstarts, hundreds, even thousands of other warblers mixed in with dozens of individuals of other species. All flying south, striving to make it to the right place for winter. Make a mind picture of the boreal forests where a Bay-breasted Warbler spent the summer and the Amazonian rainforests where it will spend the winter and expect to be mind-blown. Yes, that far. Yes, places that are radically different and they make the odyssey twice per year (!).

Scarlet Tanagers make that same trip.

It’s kind of nuts but that perception is only because we can’t fly (at least with our own wings) and we can’t migrate so incredibly far in such a short amount of time (at least by using our own body fat as fuel). For a migratory bird, it’s how things have always been, how they must be.

In Costa Rica, morning flights also occur. The Caribbean coast is the best place to see some several hundred flocks of kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and other species on the sky train to South America but we also get birds moving through the Central Valley, and that means my “backyard”.

Not many, but enough to always make it interesting. I catch the morning flight action from the back balcony and accompany it with a cup of fresh locally grown coffee (since this is Costa Rica, you can bet that it’s some damn fine coffee).

Looking out back, I usually hear a pair of Barred Antshrikes, three to four species of wrens and other locals but I’m really keeping an eye out for the tell-tale movement of the passage migrants. The quick pale flash of a Red-eyed Vireo dropping from one branch to the next. The movements of birds in flight as they alight in the top of a bamboo clump or in the grove of trees way on the other side of the ravine.

Those are where the Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers perch, where Boat-billed Flycatchers give their complaining calls, and where warblers can suddenly appear, where I hope to espy a sneaky cuckoo any day now. I scope those trees, looking for shapes that don’t belong, pieces of sticks and leaves that become birds otherwise hiding in plain sight.

A cuckoo from another day.

This morning, as with the past few, Baltimore Orioles have been taking part in the morning flight. Not very many but even one male Baltimore glowing in the morning sun is a sight for center stage. They can also hide in the profuse vegetation, the other day, with nary a sound, 8 suddenly burst out of the tree next door in a retinal ambush of orange, black, and yellow. I saw my first by chance when I was 8. It was in a patch of second growth next to a hardware store on a busy road. Since then, I have seen hundreds, even thousands of Baltimore Orioles in many places but every sighting is impressive, every one is a gift.

This morning, three gorgeous males flew through my field of view and a young male sang from a tree just out back. He sang over and over, I couldn’t help but feel that he was rejoicing to be alive, to have flown all the way from woodlots in Missouri or forests of Pennsylvania, or even some old second growth from a farm in southern Ontario.

Happy to be alive because he had to pass over false rivers and lakes of lights that tempted and beckoned from acres of deadly windows. He had to fly under the constant threat of Cooper’s Hawks and other predators, find enough food and manage to make it all the way here. Will he spend the winter? Is he singing so much because he’s a young bird with attitudes dangerously boosted by naivete? Whatever the reasons, I hope he learns to keep staying alive, I hope he figures out how survive, fly north and come back the following year. I hope that we do what it takes to ensure a world with orioles, Bay-breasted Warblers, and happy, healthy people for years to come.

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica

Seeing Grasspipers in Costa Rica

In birding lingo, sandpipers, plovers, and similar birds are often collectively referred to as “shorebirds” or “waders”. This is because most are indeed found in coastal habitats and many also spend a good amount of their time wading into shallow water. But, since life has a tendency to evolve to utilize every possible niche, we also have shorebirds that aren’t always found near the shore, waders that don’t necessarily wade.

Since many sandpiper and plover species breed in high Arctic places where the vegetation is brief, it makes evolutionary sense that some members of those avian families also occur in grassland habitats. For species such as the Long-billed Curlew, their presence on prairies is limited to the summer months when they roam grasslands under wide open, western skies. Once they fly south, this big sandpiper uses its extra long beak to probe deep into the mud of tidal flats.

We get a few birds each winter, this one was at Chomes some years ago.

Other species leave the tundra to migrate to coastal habitats and other wetlands, but some sandpipers and plovers prefer the dry, open spots. The grass can’t be too high because then, they wouldn’t see a fox creeping up on them, might miss a spying a snake or other predator that could course just over the grass and catch them by surprise. This is likely partly why we see Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers in open areas with short grass, the fact that they are adapted to such habitats is also why these particular sandpipers are known as “grasspipers”.

As one might expect from a country where tropical forest is the historic and expected natural way of things, Costa Rica isn’t the best place to see grasspipers. But, that doesn’t keep such birds from migrating through these lands. This small birdy nation is still situated on their migration route and given the right circumstances, Buff-breasteds, Uplands, and the American Golden “Grassplover” will touch-down on Costa Rican soil.

Most individuals likely do so in the open cattle fields of Guanacaste and other similar areas and that’s probably partly why we rarely see these incredible long distance migrants. They’ve got too many places where they can stop, much of it is inaccessible, and we would need an army of birders to marginally check the spots that we could access. These factors are why most local birders check the airport and eBird to see if any grasspipers are around. At least that’s what I do. The airport check gets tiresome but you gotta do it; you just never know when the birds will show.

Other cool birds, like the White-tailed Kite, can also appear.

EBird is much easier to check and thanks to that modern day birding platform, myself and other local birders were able to connect with this years’s batch of grasspipers. First found on September 23, at least a dozen Buff-breasted Sandpipers and a few Upland Sandpipers have been frequenting the large, open meadows of the airport. It’s not the quietest place for birding, nor the most comfortable, but that’s where the grasspipers are, that’s the patch of welcome grass that they noticed while flying high over the Central Valley.

I imagine that to them, it would be an oasis in a landscape of human canyons, false asphalt rivers, and useless (to those birds) woodlands that follow the twists and turns of creeks and rivers. The masters of flight would start to descend for a closer look and then seeing that the green patch was indeed a place they could use, maybe find food, they would fly down to land.

It could have been the need for a break or maybe the need to feed that brought them to the fields of the Juan Santamaria airport but I can’t help but wonder if it was one of the typical afternoon storms that forced them to land. The previous day and night was replete with heavy rains, those birds could have been flying along and realized that it wasn’t such a good idea to keep on moving in such unstable, energy-draining flying conditions. There was that patch of grass green down below and it beckoned with the hope of temporary salvation.

Whatever the reason for the visit, myself and many other local birders were pleased that the grasspipers came down to land and feed where they did. They have been here for a few days now, I hope that they can get enough food to head back into the skies, get their bearings, and keep rocketing their way south.

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

A Couple of Hours at Mistico

One of the many great things about birding in Costa Rica is the number of places where a birder can raise those bins. It may go without saying but I will still mention that although one can go birding anywhere, whether a birder wants to see House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons or 100 species in a day all depends on where you go, even in the same country.

In Costa Rica, our “sparrows and pigeons” are species like Tropical Kingbird and Great-tailed Grackle and we can see them just about anywhere including the heart of downtown San Jose. However, as with birders anywhere, variety tends to the coveted spice of life so when we venture afield for birds, we usually go to the places that have the birds we want to see. In common with such places elsewhere on this globe, those are the sites with good amounts of native habitat, the older and more pristine, the better.

Forest like this…

Fortunately for us locals and other birders visiting this bio-wonderful nation, protected areas and reforestation in Costa Rica have given us a fantastic selection of birding sites to choose from. Not all of them are eBird hotspots nor are many visited on the main birding circuit but that doesn’t take away from their value. The other day, Mary and I made a short trip to one of those quality spots and even though our birding was limited to a quiet afternoon hike, it was still invigorating to be walking in and connect with rainforest.

We visited Mistico, a site in the Arenal area that features a well-kept trail punctuated by several bridges that span creeks and forested ravines. Our visit was spurred on by a combination of a major two for one discount entrance fee while already needing to be in the area for something else. We couldn’t do anything about the time of our visit but it was still wonderful to be there. I hope that the following information will be of help for anyone thinking about hiking at Mistico.

Safety protocols

As with every tourism venture in Costa Rica, strict safety protocols were followed. These included a (1) temperature check while still in our vehicle (a check of which we almost failed because the device wasn’t working properly or was more likely registering a high temperature because of skin being warmed by the tropical sun), (2) only one person being able to go to reception to pay the entrance fee, (3) masks being required in the reception area, and (4) social distancing.

An Excellent Maintained Trail

The trail was in excellent condition and had concrete or pavers to keep you from getting muddy. This also made for easier walking although a few places seemed a bit slippery and there were some gentle inclines and descents. If you have trouble walking or maintaining balance, this trail might not be for you or you would at least need to take it really slow and easy.

Bridges

There are six hanging bridges, if you are afraid of heights, expect some moments of terror. But if not, expect fantastic views and the chance to peek into the canopy, sort of like the views available from a canopy tower! If your walk across a bridge coincides with the passage of a mixed flock, you will be in for a treat.

View from a high bridge.

Habitat and Birds

Having been to this spot before, I can attest to the quality of the birding. This site comprises a fair-sized area of foothill rainforest with such specialties as Dull-mantled Antbird, many tanagers (iincluding Rufous-winged Tanager), ant-following species, White-fronted Nunbird, and plenty of other species to keep you busy. Our brief afternoon visit was understandably slow (we were there from one to three) but we still had close views of Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Spotted Antbird, and various other species at the edge of the forest.

Rufous Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot

Although our casual searches didn’t pan out, this site is often good for roosting Crested Owl and wintering Chuck-will’s-Widow and plenty of other species can also show.

Cost and Reason to Visit

Normally, a visit costs around $40 per person with an optional add-on for lunch. It’s a fairly hefty fee for a trail but the trail is very nice, does have cool hanging bridges, and is pretty good birding. Mistico receives a fair number of visitors but most of the birds are fairly accustomed to people. Off-hand, it seems like a good place to visit with non-birders or if you feel like birding from some canopy bridges. With the exception of the Rufous-winged Tanager (which is often in fruiting figs in the parking area), the species at Mistico can be just as well seen at other sites in the Arenal area. That said, it might have those roosting owls and nightjars so if you do decide to visit, you can’t go wrong.

As with every good birding spot, I would love to visit Mistico again. I’m not sure when that will happen but I have plenty of other good birding sites in Costa Rica to choose from. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. More akin to a handbook for birding Costa Rica, it’s an excellent resource for planning and preparing for future trips to this birdy nation. I hope to see you here!

Categories
biodiversity climate change migration

Blackburnian Warblers in Costa Rica- Will They Always be Here?

Fall passerine migration has reached Costa Rica. Unlike the woods and fields of Niagara, it doesn’t happen in waves of birds that shake the pollen from the Goldenrod. The subtle movements and gentle colors of warblers, vireos, and Least Flycatchers in early autumn foliage aren’t a part of our fall landscape but that’s alright; every place has its avian charm. In Costa Rica, our fall migration charms start with flocks of Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, group after group of Eastern Kingbird, an abundance of Red-eyed Vireos and wood-pewees. As in the north, the ancient annual movement of birds also happens in Costa Rica, it just takes on different flavors and shades of bird.

An Eastern Kingbird migrating through Costa Rica.

Other birds that paint a Central American autumn are thousands (likely millions) of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows, Purple Martins, and many Scarlet Tanagers. Although we don’t see the full array of classic, confusing fall warblers, a fair number still move into and through Costa Rica. You see, our fall migration is a combination of birds coming back to their winter homes and others heading further south, straight to the bird continent that begins with Colombia. The Blackburnian Warbler is one of those passage migrants and these days, it can be the most common warbler in town.

The other day, we had our first fall taste of Blackburnians while visiting some friends for some morning birding in higher habitats. Although our birding destination was still heavily influenced by an urban component, there were enough gardens and green space to connect us with a healthy number of birds. For folks from North America, this will surely sound odd but the best bird on our morning list was actually a Tree Swallow. A species that doesn’t need to travel this far south, we don’t get too many in Costa Rica and most sightings take place in later months. Nevertheless, we were surprised and pleased to be looking at a juvenile Tree Swallow flying around with a feeding swarm of resident Blue-and-white Swallows.

Blue-and-white Swallow

The rest of the morning gave us more typical migrant species; a Western Wood-Pewee that sallied from a garden post, a couple of Wilson’s Warblers at higher elevations, and our first Black-and-white Warbler of the fall. More groups of swallows also moved through, mostly in the form of Cliff and I do enjoy watching those but our main quarry, our most hoped for birds were wood-warblers. This being the height of Cerulean Warbler migration in Costa Rica, I have to admit that this special beauty was the number one bird on my mind. We weren’t looking in the best of places but at this time of transience, it can happen anywhere, even in the riparian zone out back.

We might not have seen a Cerulean on that day but checking each and any warbler still rewarded us with numerous looks at another favorite beauty, the Blackburnian.

We must have seen at least 8 of this popular species on that morning, maybe more, and on subsequent days, I saw some while walking near home. Unlike the male warblers of May, the birds that boast their presence with bright colors and song, these Blackburnians were in fall stealth migration mode. They didn’t chip, they didn’t respond to pishing or pygmy-owl or screech-owl calls. They were too busy feeding for any of that nonsense, too intent on bulking up to head back into the night skies and move to their Andean wintering grounds.

Given their quiet focused ways, the warblers almost went unnoticed, even as they steadily moved through the foliage, hopping here, picking something off a leaf there. Given that effective unobtrusive behavior, I wonder how many more were out there in Costa Rica? Hundreds? Probably thousands, all spread across green space, feeding to fill up and keep moving.

Blackburnian Warbler in stealth mode.

The tropical foliage where they forage and spend the winter is a far cry from their breeding grounds. It’s hard to imagine both types of forest in the same frame of thought but the connection is made with Blackburnian Warblers and other birds. They form a bridge between fantastic humid biodense forests of the Andes with fantastic mixed forests of the north. Those breeding grounds are forests of Maple, Oak, and Spruce, places where I have been serenaded to near sleep by the steady toots of Northern Saw-whet Owl, places where one awakes to the ethereal song of Wood Thrushes, places where I made my first birding steps.

Hemlock and pine and June in such places is an incredible show of birdsong. At least it should be. It still is in many places but given the massive decline in birds, I am sure it’s not as loud as it warrants. Nor are the trees as massive and tall as they should be even though much forest has grown back.

Naturally speaking, it’s extremely important to know how things should naturally be because how else can we know if an ecosystem is working as it should? How else can we know if the vegetation is growing as it should to provide people hundreds of years from now with carbon sequestration, food, and other essential benefits? How else can we know if there are enough Blackburnian and other warblers to act as natural pest killers? How else can we know if we are working with our natural surroundings and not breaking down the essential connections, wiping away a safety net that would keep us thriving for the long run?

The Blackburnians that are moving through Costa Rica didn’t have to deal with the conflagrations out west. The Olive-sided Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewees I saw today are the lucky ones, they made it here in time. The other countless number of birds that died in those flames and that may have been erased by the subsequent smoke weren’t so lucky. Terribly, many people also lost their lives, countless more people survived but lost their homes along with everything inside.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee

Having gone through the devastation of a home fire (and not even one where the house was destroyed), I can’t begin to tell you how terrible that is but if you can imagine one moment to the next being homeless and having nothing, and maybe also losing a loved one or family pet, that gives a fair idea. If there’s any way anyone can help, check out these possibilities, these people need it now.

On the bird side of things, the fires make me wonder if there will be fewer Wilson’s Warblers in Costa Rica this winter. The fires may have been partly responsible for the large number of bird deaths from New Mexico. For the Wilson’s that winter in Costa Rica, it all depends on where they are coming from but if we as a species can’t make major changes in time, eventually, it won’t much matter where that species, Blackburnians or many other birds live. Whether they survive drastic changes brought on by human-caused climate change or not will be one more sick gamble of the Anthropocene.

We can put the odds in their favor and keep seeing Blackburnian Warbler in Costa Rica, on the Texas Coast, and Magee Marsh but only if we make major changes now in our collective behavior. We CAN make changes to limit the fires and other major disasters that have the ability to eventually disrupt food production and other basic aspects of life to the point of causing suffering for huge numbers of people. Let’s make the change, the time to do it has already been now.

Categories
biodiversity migration

Wood-Pewee Connection

It’s early September and the first fall migrants are coming through Costa Rica. These are the species that passed through the lands near their northern breeding grounds during the dog days of August; the hot days of shorebird migration, the time of latent summer that tricks you into never believing in winter. In Niagara, those humid days made it hard to imagine the constant freezing winds of a lake watch, the nights ruled by nature’s lethal cold caress. While walking on the hazy beaches of Lake Erie, it was odd to imagine that, just a few months later, those same warm sandy places would be glazed with ice. But the presence of Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers wasn’t any hoax, those Arctic nesters weren’t flying way south for nothing.

In September, those and many other shorebirds have converged in Costa Rica. These are the days to watch them (!), to look for the odd one out, see if you can trick yourself into changing a funny looking distant Semipalmated Plover into a mega Common Ringed. Being far south of cold weather, smartly situated in vital wintering grounds for multitudes of Passerines, Costa Rica also bears witness to numbers of warblers, Baltimore Orioles and other migrant birds of the north. Although the bulk of those travelers won’t be in Costa Rica until October, some of the earlier migrants come through town just about now.

Among those “early” species are birds that winter in South America, birds like Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, and Mississippi Kites. A kite in the Central Valley would be a bonus and it’s not out of the question but seeing one will likely require a visit to the Caribbean lowlands. That’s also where most of the vireos and kingbirds travel but some also find their way to our “backyard”.

This morning, while enjoying coffee and looking for avian action out back, I saw that two vireos had managed to do just that. They were so stealthy, I almost didn’t see them. Unlike the constantly singing bird of the breeding grounds, the fall vireos of Costa Rica have removed themselves from center stage. More concerned with eating, the only sign of their presence is a brief flutter in leafy vegetation, an afterthought of a bird that seems to vanish as soon as you raise the binos. There were just two or were there more? Taking their stealthy behavior into account, there could have easily been several in the area, more birds ghosting their way through the riparian zones out back.

As with every migrant bird, I always wonder where they came from? How far did they fly the night before? Where did those small olive, gray, and white birds spend the summer? Was it in the beautiful mixed forests of the Upper Peninsula where I once camped and listened to Saw-whets on a cold night? Had they been singing in the rolling forests of southern Illinois where I worked for a field season doing bird surveys and looking for bird nests? Could they have even come from the remnant old growth forests of the Niagara Gorge, a special place close to the heart where, like many other Western New Yorkers, I used to hike and fish for salmon?

I wondered the same about another migrant species I had seen out back a few days before. It looked so much like an extension of a snag, I wouldn’t have noticed the bird if it hadn’t moved. Luckily, it was actually moving a lot, sallying out again and again and that bit of brown flash during a light rain is what prompted me to get my binocs. Focusing in on the tip of the stick revealed a wood-pewee and although this migrant Contopus is at the duller end of the colorful bird spectrum, it shines with hues of behavior, challenge, and story.

This particular pewee was showcasing its classic pewee behavior with urgent fervor. It no doubt had better places to be and was buying its night train ticket with captures of airborne insects. Looking at it through the scope revealed a small brown bird constantly looking back and forth and up and down. No time for song, it sallied out again and again, even going after but missing a large white butterfly (oh yes, there are many seriously cool butterflies out back!). Keeping with a pewee tradition that pleases the birder, it came back to that same snag every single time and thus allowed me to study it as much as I wanted.

Those prolonged looks helped me pass the pewee challenge. Scope studies convinced me that the non-vocalizing bird was a Western Wood-Pewee, a species that migrates through the highlands of Costa Rica in large numbers. Although it always is best to hear a pewee before giving it a name, this bird was so gray, had such an overall dark bill, and a more prominent lower wing bar, I figured it had to be a Western.

As for the story of that pewee, I suppose the only thing I honestly know is that it spent a late afternoon in a riparian zone in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. I don’t even know if it found enough food to head back into the night skies and keep flying south but I didn’t see it the following day. As with those vireos and any of the migrant birds from the north, I can’t know where it came from but having heard them on many a bird survey in Colorado and Washington, I have a fair idea of places where it could have spent the summer. Places with Aspens and conifers in unbelievably spectacular scenery, places where I heard many a Flammulated Owl, admired those small owls with a flashlight. Places blanketed with forests of tall Doug Firs, ferns and Devil’s Club in the understory, Varied Thrushes singing from above, Pacific Wrens calling from below. Drier and sunnier habitats too with scattered oaks, junipers and brush frequented by Virginia’s Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees.

That small bird might seem insignificant but it hails from fantastic, beautiful places far to the north, flies through the night over vast areas of Mexico and on to Central America and the story doesn’t even stop there! It keeps going, flying further still to the lush cloud forests of South America, all the way to places with astounding bastions of biodiversity, all the way to the Andes where it shares an avian scene with chat-tyrants, ridiculously plumaged hummingbirds, and a fantastic array of tanagers.

I have also been fortunate to have visited those places where it winters. For now, I’m happy to greet it on its way south but one day, I still hope to fly into the night and meet it again on its wintering grounds.

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding News, Costa Rica, September, 2020

It’s September. All of a sudden, here we are starting one of most beautiful months to visit Niagara Falls, the month when the weather is perfect, the salmon are running, and millions of birds are on the move. It seems like we got here so quickly, it also seems like it took forever. So goes the passage of time during the limbo dance of the 20202 pandemic. As always, time doesn’t stop even if our perceptions of it are affected and changed by our circumstances.

Each month has its advantages but for the birding people, September is one of those extra special times. In Costa Rica, it’s a major month of shorebirds and we mark it with annual counts and scoping through congregations of waders at such key sites as Chomes, Punta Morales, and Las Pangas. The first of the migrant passerines are also arriving (including Cerulean Warblers!) but the majority postpone the trip until October. Few if any birders will be visiting Costa Rica this September but you never know, the country is starting to reopen. I hope the following information can be of help:

Storm-Petrels from Puntarenas

Yesterday, September 1st, Marilen and I kicked off the month with a visit to the Pacific Coast. Seeing two Humpback Whales from an overlook just outside of Jaco was fantastic but even more newsworthy was the presence of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels seen from shore at Puntarenas. A small but vital port city, Puntarenas is situated on a spit of land that pokes into the Gulf of Nicoya right where the inner and outer parts of the gulf meet. As a birder might expect, that position and convergence of aquatic systems can attract some interesting things. It’s the type of place that always merits a scan at any time of day and perhaps most of all during the rainy season when an abundance of nutrients are washed into the gulf.

There are storm-petrels out there...

Yesterday’s visit paid off with immediate, close views of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. At first, I figured the small birds flying around the water would be Black Terns but no, every single one was a storm-petrel! The presence of this species in the Gulf of Nicoya is regular but I have rarely seen them from shore and never in such numbers. Typically, with a few ferry rides and maybe 10 visits to Puntarenas over the course of a year, I see one to three Wedge-rumpeds. Yesterday, I counted 28 and I suspect more were present further out. It makes me wonder what else was out there (we did notice some large, tantalizing groups of birds too far away to identify)? Why were so many present? As with some of my other sightings of Black and Least storm-petrels from the point at Puntarenas, many of the birds were foraging where the waters of the inner gulf may converge with those of the outer. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of having some form of bird monitoring and studies for the Gulf of Nicoya to better assess numbers and species that visit the waters of the gulf at which time of year.

Shorebirds

This is high time for shorebird migration in Costa Rica and it’s only going to improve over the next two or three weeks. The most exciting sighting was that of a Ruff (!) seen during the final days of August by Daniel Hernandez in the Las Pangas wetlands near Ciudad Neily. It’s fantastic to have this vagrant once again show in Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual and hope it will stay for the winter.

At Las Pangas, Baird’s Sandpiper has also been seen, more of this species should be present at suitable sites during the next two months. We will be checking a Central Valley site where we had it last year.

Shorebird hotspot Punta Morales has also been good, yesterday, we had large numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willet, and Wilson’s Plovers among 11 other species including Surfbird, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a single Long-billed Curlew.

Cocos Island

Currently, Serge Arias of Costa Rica Birding and some other local birders are on a trip to Cocos Island. I can’t wait to see what they come back with! Will checking the photos turn up some new record for Costa Rica? That always is a possibility.

Nemesis seen

As with any nemesis, it took some time, but I eventually did catch up with the nefarious Masked Duck. We had close views, we saw both sexes, birds vocalized, we saw them doing their skulking thing, and the experience was shared in good company. I am grateful and couldn’t have asked for more! Hopefully, Mary and I will get the chance to visit that area soon and see those birds again.

Updates to Rules for Visiting Costa Rica

The same rules for visiting during the pandemic are still in place but now, folks from certain states in the USA can also visit and more are scheduled to be allowed entrance after September 15th. For more information, see the Costa Rica Tourism Board. One main issue for visiting is getting a pcr COVID-19 test done within 72 hours before travel. Hopefully, this issue will improve, at the moment, I have heard of at least one place in NYC that may do that. Maybe various other places for quick test results are also available?

‘NOTE that if you do get a COVID-19 test, it absolutely has to be a pcr test and not the serological test that checks for antibodies. Recently, two Spanish citizens were denied entrance to Costa Rica because they arrived with results the serological test.

There’s probably more to say about birding in Costa Rica in September but that’s all I can think of for now. Wishing readers the best of birding days, hope to see you sometime soon!

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

Species to See While Birding in Costa Rica: Golden-naped Woodpecker

There are many ways to watch birds. Do we just watch the birds seen through the back window? Maybe not even worry about how they have been named or classified? Do we make plans to learn where certain wood-warblers have been seen and then carry out miniature private expeditions to find them? Maybe some of us venture into the pre-dawn of the marsh to meet the rising of a sun flecked with the silhouettes and calls of whistling-ducks. Some of us might even go much further afield, taking boat trips straight into the open ocean to reach the deep waters, the places where pelagic birds might wander into view. We may also travel to other continents to see birds, take multi-day trips to witness as much of what the avian world can offer.

Birding is birding is birdwatching no matter how you do it but it’s OK to prioritize some species. To be honest, when traveling, it would be a shame not to make efforts to see birds not possible in other places. These are the endemics, the very near endemics, and the species that are just easier to see at one place than another. In Costa Rica, we have several such birds, one of them is a woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker is as smartly dressed as its name sounds.

Although this species also lives in western Panama, it is quite nearly restricted to the humid forests of southern Costa Rica. Ranging from Carara National Park to the border, seeing it in Panama seems to typically require a rather difficult trip to the last sizeable patch of lowland rainforest in western Chiriqui.

In Costa Rica, although it is readily seen in many places, it also seems to be more or less restricted to areas of mature rainforest. It can range into second growth but in my experience, for the most part, the Red-crowned Woodpecker takes its place in such edge and open habitats.

Red-crowned Woodpecker,

As with many of the southern Pacific endemics, the Golden-naped Woodpecker seems to be most common in the forests of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce. It can be seen elsewhere but is certainly most frequent in places with the highest amounts of rainfall and is likely declining because of hotter, drier weather.

Although it takes the place of the Black-cheeked Woodpecker in the rainforests of the Pacific slope, the Golden-naped might even be more closely related to the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker of the Amazon. Or, more likely, it and the closely related Beautiful Woodpecker of Colombia are sort of “bridge” species between the Yellow-tufted and Black-cheeked. No matter what its evolutionary provenance may be, like the Black-cheeked, the Golden-naped Woodpecker does the photographer a favor by visiting fruit feeders as well as foraging in low fruiting trees.

Golden-naped Woodpecker,
Another image of a female Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

Check this bird out on your next visit to Costa Rica, it’s definitely one that you don’t want to miss!