September to early December is always a rainy time in Costa Rica but this year is expected to be worse. Although El Nino will be taking a break from wreaking meteorological havoc on the region, we won’t luck out with dry weather like last year because La Nina has decided to show up and throw a massive, celestial pool party. Since her games with Costa Rica will involve dumping 60% more precipitation than usual for this time of year, we wish she would hold the festivities elsewhere. She’s gotta finish what she started however, so I think I better get an industrial-strength umbrella and become accustomed to getting wet. I also need to get used to birding in the rain because I’m not going to let the precipitation keep me from watching birds AND I’ll probably see more anyways!
It’s nice to keep dry but hot, sunny weather really is bad for birding in Costa Rica. Honestly, the birding norm for days with clear skies punctuated by a blazing-hot sun involves a couple hours of morning activity followed by a slooooooowww rest of the day until cloud cover gives some respite from “El Sol”. Raptors tend to fly more often on sunny days but overall, the birds seem to be on strike or influenced by Jimmy Buffet as they snooze for hours in their hidden, bird hammocks.
Sunny weather is much better for butterflies and you can also waltz through the rain forest without experiencing one drop of falling water but it becomes very difficult to see any birds. If you can manage binoculars in one hand and an umbrella in the other while it rains, however, you will see a lot more than on sunny days. Better yet, find a sheltered spot that has nice views of good habitat and scan the vegetation for perched birds, fruiting trees, and flowers. Sooner or later something cool will show up at such food source hotspots and when the rain slows down or stops, your field of view will suddenly be filled with birds that are hopping, flying, singing, and generally going nuts. I recall a day of birding at Tapanti last year when it was like this and bird activity was on the verge of being ridiculous. I mean Black-faced Solitaires were hopping out onto the road, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were racing through the treetops, Collared Trogons were coming down low and looking at us with curiosity, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle made an appearance….yeah, it was pretty awesome!
Although heavy rains can become a bore (especially when riverbanks overflow and roads get washed out), birding in Costa Rica can still be good and is often more productive than sunny days, especially so when skies are overcast. On days like that, it’s like a birdy morning all day long and even shy things like quail-doves and antpittas are more active. In fact, it’s like that today and I wish I was out birding because as I write this, Melodious Blackbirds, Clay-colored Robins, and Rufous-collared Sparrows are calling just out my window and I bet there’s a lot of other overcast-inspired avian activity going on. I hope it’s like this on Sunday because I plan on birding the Volcan Barva area.
If you are headed to Costa Rica sometime between now and December, my advice is to be prepared for the rain but also to get ready for seeing more birds throughout the day. It’s also a good idea to keep updated on the weather and road conditions (more or less easily done by asking staff at hotels, reading the Tico Times, or watching local, evening news on channels 6,7, or 11). I should also add that the Caribbean Slope is not expected to receive much more rain than usual because La Nina will be carrying out her bucket brigade on the Pacific Slope.