One of the main reasons birding is more popular than endeavors such as bat watching, beetle spotting, or looking for mollusks is that it’s so much easier to do. Most bird species are diurnal, they are pretty easy to see (except for the ultra sneaky rails), and they come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. It’s hard not to watch them or at least notice our fellow feathered denizens of planet Earth.
On a recent trip to Heliconias Lodge in Bijagua, although we were looking forward to seeing Tody Motmots, crafty antbirds, and whatever else turned up in the high quality forests of that site, I thought it would be interesting to do a count of the numbers and types of birds identified during the four hour drive from San Jose.
A typical scene during our roadside Costa Rican bird count.
Like all aficionados of the world’s greatest activity, pastime, or obsession, I always try to identify any bird espied through a car window but had never done a running count like this one. How many TKs would we see perched on the power lines? How many vultures rode the hot thermals above the Pan-American Highway? I admit, such questions don’t exactly speed up the pulse or spark a hint of anticipation but working on the answers to them was a heck of a lot more fun than singing “one hundred bottles of beers on the wall”.
We could have changed the words of the song to:
“Oooooooh, another TK on the power line, yet another TK….if one of them was actually a Social Flycatcher, then that’s one less TK overall”…..
but we were too busy counting birds to sing.
Our rules for the count were simple:
1.All birds had to be seen or heard from the car. Birds could not be counted while the car was off the road such as when we stopped at a gas station in Miramar for a bathroom break. Although we realized that not including birds identified during restroom activities would forgo any rest stop birding effects, as it turned out, we wouldn’t have added anything there anyways. In fact, I think the only bird we saw was a….TK! We also saw a really cool butterfly though that appeared to like gas fumes. I think the gas station attendant thought I was taking pictures of the ground.
Cool gas station butterfly in Miramar, Costa Rica. Please let me know what species this is!
2. As long as one of us identified the bird in question, it was counted. It would have been hazardous to require all four people to see or hear the bird while the car was zooming down the highway in Costa Rica so like a pack of Harris’ Hawks, we joined forces to achieve our goals. As long as one of us got the bird, we all figuratively feasted in the form of a slash made by a pen next to the bird’s name. Editor’s note- since our counting was more analagous to harvesting grain for the long term rather than focusing on one rabbit for immediate food, it’s tempting to refer to us as “Snow Geese” but the selfish behavior of foraging Snow Geese is a far cry from cooperative strategies exhibited by Harris’ Hawks and could also erroneously imply that we are retired and travel to Florida for the winter. Like neighbors on Sesame Street, the four musketeers, or the Spanish soccer team (sorry Johan and Ineke) this count was all about cooperation.
Pat-“Did anyone else get that Blue-black Grassquit?”
Johan-“What? It’s hard to hear you from the backseat”.
Ineke (no response- sleeping off the effects of jetlag).
3. There was no turning back. This count was all or nothing no matter how enticing an unidentified bird appeared to be. We were heading down the highway, looking for adventure, and ready for whatever comes our way. Yes, ready to just keep moving and not be too concerned if that distant, perched member of the Columbidae was a Red-billed Pigeon or a White-winged Dove. With two feet firmly planted on the ground and a pair of clear-lensed binoculars, these two common roadside birds of Costa Rica are pretty easy to tell apart but when glimpsed at a distance from a moving car, uncertainty raises its broad, blocky head and emits its foggy breath to mask the truth. The substance of the breath might also be psychadelic or perhaps ultra-dimensional because it can warp reality. You think I’m joking but the next time you see a distant, long-winged creature in Costa Rica are you sure that it didn’t look just like a Pterodactyl? Common sense tells us that it was a Turkey Vulture or Magnificent Frigatebird although it certainly resembled something from another time and place. Or as far as those pigeons go, for a moment, didn’t they look just like some strange, bulky, small-headed raptor, or perhaps a mutant agouti that went arboreal? Sound’s absurd does it? Just try counting birds while zooming down the highway in Costa Rica and see what happens!
Identifying silhouettes in distant trees from a moving car- birding at its most challenging.
4. We didn’t discriminate against unidentified birds. To make up for our policy of always charging forward, we kept track of birds that refused to reveal their names. Instead of excluding them entirely, we dutifully counted each “blur of feathers”, “glimpse of some big, flying thing”, and “possible kiskadee” and threw them into the unidentified pool. We figured this was just as important as counting the identified birds because it might give an idea of the numbers of birds that can go unidentified on a drive between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica.
So with that set of rules and Susan’s suggestion to also keep track of all mammals (except Homo sapiens and domesticated creatures), we left Santa Barbara de Heredia and started counting! Instead of boringly and insanely going through the count/drive on a bird by bird basis, here are some general observations and highlights followed up by final results of species and numbers.
Despite driving through urban areas, moist middle elevations, and the hot, dry lowlands of Guanacaste, bird species were fairly similar along our route.
Although it’s not as hot inside an air-conditioned vehicle, birding is much more exciting in Costa Rica when done on foot.
You will see a lot of Black Vultures, Great-tailed Grackles, and Tropical Kingbirds when birding from a fast moving vehicle in Costa Rica.
Plain Wrens were the most common, heard only species.
One of the few advantages of getting stuck behind a slow moving, boxy truck is that you may see some nice birds. We saw a pair of Blue Grosbeaks in this manner and picked up our only Rose-throated Becard by way of its high-pitched, complaining sounding vocalization.
The boxy-truck/bus combination is a common occurrence when driving in Costa Rica.
Other highlights were White-fronted Parrots as we approached Bijagua, Paltry Tyrannulet heard near a moist mountain pass after San Ramon, one White-collared Seedeater heard belting out its sweet song from tall, lowland grass, a couple of big old Montezuma Oropendolas in flight as we descended out of the central valley (these are a much more common bird in the Caribbean lowlands), 2 heard only Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes (why go look for it in Spearfish canyon when they abound in the coffee plantations of Costa Rica).
This is where we heard the Paltry Tyrannulet and Nightingale-Thrushes.
And at long last, here is our final tally of the 42 species of birds identified from the car while driving between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica (organized from highest to lowest):
Black Vulture (133)
Great-tailed Grackle (57)
and Tropical Kingbird (47)
Blue and White Swallow (44)
Cattle Egret (30)
Turkey Vultures (28)
White-collared Swift (28)
Gray-breasted Martin (21)
Unidentified hodgepodge (the Borg of the bird count) (17)
Blue-black Grassquit (16)
Groove-billed Ani (12)
Plain Wren (11)
Orange-chinned Parakeet (11)
White-fronted Parrot (8)
Blue-gray Tanager (8)
Great Kiskadee (7)
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (7)
White-winged Dove (7)
Rufous-collared Sparrow (5)
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (5)
Inca Dove (4)
Melodious Blackbird (4)
Social Flycatcher (4)
Red-billed Pigeon (4)
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (3)
Ruddy Ground-Dove (2)
Green-backed Heron (2)
Yellow-olive Flycatcher (2)
Rufous-naped Wren (2)
Clay-colored Robin (2)
Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (2)
Blue Grosbeak (2)
Crimson-fronted Parakeet (1)
Rose-throated Becard (1)
Grayish Saltator (1)
Paltry Tyrannulet (1)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (1)
Rufous-capped Warbler (1)
Vaux’s Swift (1)
House Wren (1)
Bronzed Cowbird (1)
Scrub Euphonia (1)
White-collared Seedeater (1)
On the mammal front, we saw 10 Howler Monkeys in roadside trees along the Pan-American highway not long after Miramar. Susan (one of the bird counting 4 and the driver) says that she sees them, and sometimes Capuchins too, every time she drives past that spot. Our only other mammals were 3-4, dead Northern Tamanduas that were unfortunate victims of hit and run drivers on the Pan-American highway.
Where the howlers hang out.
To sum things up, counting birds from a fast car in Costa Rica is always more worthwhile than singing annoying ditties about beer bottles or “Kumbaya” but it pales like bleach compared to a walk through the rainforest.
Where you really want to be birding in Costa Rica.