In July, meteorogists made the official announcement that El Nino is back for another visit to the Pacific Coast of Latin America. Termed “El Nino” (the child) because this weather phenomenon typically occurs around Christmas (in Latin America, this same term is often used in reference to the arrival of baby Jesus), this is one kid that farmers in Guanacaste, Costa Rica don’t want around. Although the warm waters associated with El Nino bring rains to some areas of South America, Costa Rica typically suffers from droughts in the Pacific Northwest and the Central Valley. Instead of the daily afternoon rains that people are used to and expect at this time of year, the hot, tropical sun beats down upon the zinc roofs day after day. While worried Ticos in the Central Valley have been talking about the dry season that never stopped, farmers in Guanacaste have become frantic as important crops such as rice and beans are lost due to the lack of deperately needed downpours. Farmers in the highlands, though, have benefited from the hot, dry weather. Their crops of potatoes and onions that typically suffer from fungis and molds that proliferate in wet conditions have done very well.
As far as the birds go, I suspect that although populations of most species in the Central Valley and Guanacaste probably won’t have a very successful breeding season, this won’t be very noticeable to the visiting birder as one bad breeding season won’t affect bird populations too much. Although they will unfortunately be stressed, birds might also be easier to watch in the Pacific Northwest as they concentrate around scarce, wet areas. Whereas birds in the dry forest would typically be benefitting from the annual “greening” of the vegetation, with the lack of rains, plants not found in riparian corridors or watered areas such as golf courses or hotel gardens may be too stressed to produce flowers and fruits. This will probably affect frugivores such as trogons, manakins, and bellbirds to the point that we may see some of these as vagrants to other parts of Costa Rica or could see more around hotels planted with fruiting trees.
As opposed to the Pacific Slope, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has not been affected by El Nino and has actually experienced higher rain than normal. I personally hope that the rains on the other side of the mountains take a break this weekend when I head to Pocosol to co-guide a BCCR trip. Watch for a report about that place! Rarely visited, it has some of the wildest forests on the Caribbean Slope. Although I won’t be surprised if we end up birding from the shelter of the biological station during constant rain, we will still see some good stuff in any case. Lovely Cotinga? Keel-billed Motmot? Tawny-faced Quail? All of these occur there although now that I have mentioned them, I have assured that I won’t see them. Well, maybe someone else in the group will.
For birders who decided to risk a visit during normally rainy October and November, they are in luck because the El Nino of 2009 is expected to last until 2010 with lighter rain than normal during those normally extremely wet months.