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The Birding in Costa Rica goes from Good to Exceptional When You see a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo!

The Neomorphus cuckoos are some of the toughest birds to see in the neotropics. Unlike their more northerly, arid-zone cousins, the roudrunners, these are secretive birds of dense rainforests and like many other birds that inhabit that exciting habitat, they are naturally rare. In other words, they have low density populations where pairs and/or individuals roam over presumably large areas of forest.

Using words like “supposed” and “presumably” is necessary when talking about Neomorphus species because we know so little about them. None of the species are what you would call common and even though we know they like to hang out with antswarms and follow herds of White-lipped Peccaries to catch the understory morsels stirred up by their activities, precious little is truly known about these mysterious rainforest roadrunners. In terms of their place on the food chain and frequency of encountering them, it’s not too far off target to say that they are apex avian understory predators (at least when it comes to lizards and large bugs).

To give an idea of how infrequent these birds are, I saw the tail of one once at the back part of the Las Palmas trail in Quebrada Gonzalez more than 10 years ago. I only saw a tail but there is nothing else with a long, rufous-greenish tail in the rainforest understory so I know that I had seen one of those big, rare, forest cuckoos. Nevertheless, I couldn’t cheat myself out of a  much better, count-worthy sighting so it stayed off the list. I should also mention that the view of that tail is the closest I came to a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo despite multiple visits to Las Heliconias and Quebrada Gonzalez, and several visits to the Amazon (including a year of near constant birding in Tambopata, Peru), until last Saturday.

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What ground-cuckoo habitat looks like.

Yes, last Saturday, while guiding two very fortunate birders, we saw the ground-cuckoo. No, we hit the jackpot with the ground-cuckoo because this was no tail nor glimpse of a tawny crest but a prolonged sighting of one that stared at us from the forest understory, popped out onto the trail for a better look, and didn’t saunter away until we got soul satisfying views.

No kidding.

Others had told me that ground-cuckoos can appear to be fearless or even curious and it certainly seemed like this bird had its curiousity piqued. I had heard Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds as we hung out deep in the forest at the back part of the Las Palmas loop and were trying to coax those birds into view when one of my clients said something along the lines of, “Hey, what is that”? I heard two distinctive clacks immediately after and realized that she must have seen a ground-cuckoo! Excitedly, I looked back into the forest and could see the head of the beast as it raised and lowered its crest! I couldn’t get the other client on the bird fast enough before it disappeared from view but I said that we might as well wait and see if it shows up again. Hopefully, the supposed antswarm back there will make it towards us and we should see it.

The antswarm must have been headed in the opposite direction because nary an Eciton showed its voracious face. Fortunately for us, that didn’t matter because the ground-cuckoo appeared as if by magic off to the right and closer! It looked at us as it quietly clacked its bill and we watched it in turn as we talked about the dark green on its wings with hushed excitement. It quickly walked to the right and one of the clients said, “It’s coming out onto the trail”!

It did, perched on a mossy stone, and here it is:

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A blurry but identifiable photo of my official lifer Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

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A picture with the dim-light setting on my camera.

It lingered for about a minute and we soaked up the views like lizards sitting in the sun after an Ice Age. It eventually walked off to the right and then crossed back over to the left side of the trail. In a strange case of birding deja vu, it actually left the path in the exact same spot where I saw that tail in 2001!

We also saw Streak-crowned Antvireo, Checker-throated Antwren, Emerald Tanager, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and had our fill of Snowcaps over at El Tapir but the ground-cuckoo, of course, took the cake on that fateful day. I’m headed back tomorrow with a friend. The ground-cuckoo is one of his top four Costa Rican target birds and we had already planned on going there to maybe chance across it along with some other choice species. I haven’t told him yet about Saturday’s sighting. I hope I can surprise him.

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It’s hard not to also include an image of one of the Snowcaps we saw.

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Trip Report from a Recent Birding Trip to Laguna del Lagarto (part dos)

5 AM, September 8th, Laguna del Lagarto

Whether guiding a trip like this one or out birding for fun, I’m always out in the field by dawn. On this day, I ventured outside when it was still dark to listen for migrants. None were heard and the owls were quiet (of the 6 or 7 species present at this site) but some of the other birds that typically call in the crepuscular hours were revealing themselves. A couple of Green Ibis gave their odd, growling calls from one of the lagoons as a Collared Forest Falcon called from the forest. The sounds of woodcreepers also signal dawn when birding in Costa Rica and Laguna was no exception with Northern Barred, Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Black-striped all sounding off. Rufous-tailed and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds were also coming awake with squeeky sounding calls.

It was light enough to see in a matter of minutes and as I walked over to the essential morning cup of coffee, pairs of Red-lored Parrots began to call and fly overhead. Small flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets were also seen and more of the same species from yesterday were chipping from the trees and coming down to the feeder.

After that first cup of coffee, we decided to head back to the garden to relocate the Pied Puffbirds from the previous evening and try once again for White-fronted Nunbird. Despite calling for them in the same place where we had seen them, the puffbirds pulled a now-show. As for their orange-billed cousins, forget about it. They were nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor did Central American Pygmy-Owl vocalize or reveal itself- they might be quiet at that time of the year. So, after the garden we checked the compost heap to see if something rare like an Olive-backed Quail-Dove happened to be foraging for easy pickings. That wasn’t to be but we were at least entertained by a family of funny looking Gray-necked Wood-Rails.

When we passed by the entrance to the trails, the group also got fantastic looks at a pair of Great Curassows! These large, fancy Cracids are very rare or gone from many parts of their accessible range due to an unfortunate inability to withstand just about any amount of hunting. Luckily, in Costa Rica, they are fairly easy to see at a few lodges and sites where they receive enough protection.

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One can never get enough of those curly-crested Great Curassows.

After the curassows displayed their greatness and walked off into the leafy understory, we ventured out onto the road that goes in front of the lodge. With forest on one side and open areas on the other, it offers exciting opportunities for a huge variety of birds.

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View of lowland rainforest and one of the lagoons from the road.

We quickly got onto more Olive-throated Parakeets, and saw typical lowland fare like toucans, Collared Aracari, Yellow Tyrannulet, tityras, Shining Honeycreepers, White-vented Euphonia, Short-billed Pigeons, and other species. Our best bird was arguably the cool-looking Scaled Pigeon that perched high up in an isolated tree near a couple of Short-billeds. Ironically, the Scaled has much more of a red-colored bill than the Red-billed Pigeon but I admit that it’s pretty darn scaly too. Not long after the Scaled Pigeon, the time came to head back to the lodge for a true breakfast of Gallo Pinto (rice and beans), eggs, fruit, toast, and most importantly, more coffee.

While half of the group rested up after breakfast or canoed in one of the lagoons to search for the Agami Heron,  I led the other half  into the forest. As is typical of mid-morning in lowland rainforest, the low bird activity was far more conducive for studying plants. Not that we did that, but it would have been wonderful if a botanist could have accompanied us.

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We could have learned about beautiful trees like these.

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Or this one with me doing the requisite photo of standing in front of an old growth rainforest giant.

It was a beautiful walk in those humid, hallowed green halls but plants weren’t the only things we saw. Our patience and careful observation eventually paid off with views of Western Slaty Antshrike, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren. All of these except for the antshrike were moving together in a small mixed flock. The calls of the gnatwren gave them away and it took a while for the others to come into view but they eventually did and we all got pretty good looks at these uncommon rainforest species.

After the mixed flock, we heard but only got glimpses of Tawny-crested Tanager and became excited upon seeing army ants (!). I heard a Bicolored Antbird and figured that we were in store for some antbird action but just couldn’t locate the front of the swarm. Nevertheless, we at least got some brief looks at a fancy Ocellated Antbird just before walking out of the forest to avoid a downpour.

Back at the lodge, Connie showed us what they saw from the boat- in addition to seeing the Agami Heron, they also saw a roosting Crested Owl! Off several of us went on a short yet fateful expedition in search of those quality birds. Although the sun was shining when we boarded the boats, this turned out to be nothing but a ruse that ended up soaking us to the core. At least the rain was warm and we saw both the heron and the owl but tragedy struck when my digital recording device got wet. It can play vocalizations in its memory banks but appears to no longer be capable of making recordings. I hope I can fix it soon!

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The fateful canoe ride.

The rest of our birding on Saturday took place on the balcony, from a boat on the San Carlos river for some of the group, and during another walk in the forest. No tinamous and no responses from Tawny-faced Quail but it was a nice walk anyways and that evening, some of us got very close looks at Short-tailed Nighthawk doing its big bat impression just off the balcony and saw a flyover Green Ibis. No further luck with nocturnal birds that night and most of us crashed by about 8.

5AM, September 9th, Laguna del Lagarto

Another dawn walk turned up the same species as the day before. After coffee, we decided to bird down the front road again but this time, heading back towards Boca Tapada. This part of the road is forested on both sides and has a couple of wetlands. Things were pretty quiet and we skunked out on the nunbirds once again but still managed to see Black-throated Trogon, perched Mealy Parrot, toucans, Dot-winged Antwrens, Lesser Greenlets, and called in a Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant that was missed by most because it’s basically a bug with feathers.

More lines of army ants were found right on the road and we could hear both Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds but much to our frustration, we couldn’t close enough to the forest edge to see them! Nor would those denizens of the shady forest understory even come close to the edge. Plain-brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers ventured into view though and most of us got looks at those ant-following birds.

After the swarm, it was time to head back to the lodge for breakfast and to do the bird list for the trip. With a longish drive ahead of them, everyone except Susan and I left for home. We decided to go for another walk in the forest to look for those elusive ground birds (can you tell that I need the quail for a lifer? I heard it in Ecuador once but the only ones we heard on this trip were the quail whistles from my own puckered lips). It was a beautiful walk in the forest in any case and the back area in particular looks really good. If you visit, I suggest walking straight back into the forest before dawn and hanging out there deep in the woods as it gets light. It might offer your best chance at getting birds like Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, that elusive little quail, Tapir or even Jaguar. I can’t wait to try that on my next visit.

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Looking up into the canopy.

We eventually ran into some birds and the calls of Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and Yellow-margined Flycatcher hinted at a mixed flock deep in the forest but our best find was of the reptile variety. Right next to the trail was a medium-sized Boa Constrictor. After giving it a healthy detour, I digiscoped its head.

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Boa Constrictor at Laguna del Lagarto.

Upon leaving the forest, an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle called and soared above the parking lot (of course after everyone had hit the road). We packed and began the four and a half hour drive back. Sunny weather made for few birds along the way but we did manage to find out where the Great Green Macaws were! Just as we approached San Miguel, we counted a group of 33 of these majestic endangered birds as they flew near the base of the first mountain ridge from south to north around 3:00 PM.  To me, it looked like they were making a beeline for Chilamate or the La Virgen area.

To sum the experience up, Laguna delivered pretty much just as it did a year and a half ago. Rooms were nice and clean, service was pretty much outstanding and food was pretty good. As for the birds, not as many came to the feeders (it’s better during January to April), and that time of the year is also better for Great Green Macaw but we still had a great selection of birds. Everyone got to see Agami Heron from a canoe, most saw the roosting Crested Owl, antwrens and antbirds were nice, we had 7 species of woodcreepers (Spotted was heard only), Pied Puffbird, close looks at Great Curassow and Slate-colored Grosbeak, Bat Falcon (two in our group saw it snatch a bat!), Ornate Hawk-Eagle for Susan and I, Scaled Pigeon, thousands of migrating Mississippi Kites, White-vented Euphonias, a very likely Green and Rufous Kingfisher glimpsed by Susan, and wonderful looks at parrots and parakeets. My only complaint is that I wish I could stay at least a week because when you spend just two nights at rich, lowland sites like Laguna del Lagarto, you barely scratch the surface.

On a side note,  a four-wheel drive vehicle would be best for the road to the lodge.

To see more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica, see Costa Rica Living and Birding at http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress

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Trip Report from a Recent Birding Trip to Laguna del Lagarto (part uno)

Laguna del Lagarto is a veteran eco-lodge found up near the Nicaraguan border. The detour one has to take to get there keeps most bird tour groups and many a visiting birder from making it to the forests around the little settlement known as Boca Tapada. With most of the species being readily found around the much more strategically located Sarapiqui area, it’s easy to see why Laguna gets written off pretty quickly once the trip planning process kicks into gear.

It’s not that the birding doesn’t sound promising. It’s just that most people find it hard to justify adding a site into an itinerary that requires venturing a couple hours off the common Costa Rican birding route. For birders who have already done the typical circuit and those of us who reside in Costa Rica, it’s a lot more enticing though and I always jump at the chance to visit the rainforests of the San Carlos region. Those little birded forests are essentially the draw of Laguna del Lagarto and I know that at least I always wish I could spend more time up that way simply because there’s a lot more forest than the Sarapiqui area. Don’t get me wrong, La Selva and surroundings is great for birding and offers a bunch of forested sites but the fact that there’s more forest around Laguna del Lagarto along with its proximity to the massive Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua gives it a heck of a lot of potential.

Add that to rather few birders visiting the area and you realize that just about anything could turn up! Ok, so we didn’t get any super rare species on the trip there this past weekend but two to three days isn’t nearly enough time to check out the area to my satisfaction. Effective bird surveys of lowland rainforest require counts that begin before dawn way back in the forest. You need people to survey the lagoons and forest edge at the same time, and it would be great to have a team using scopes to scan forested hillsides as well as someone to check out other forested sites in the vicinity. A Christmas count might do the job as long as there were enough experienced participants and even then, it’s only one sampling event out of an entire year.

The point I’m trying to get at is that although we didn’t connect with rarities like Red-throated Caracara, Great Jacamar, either of the two large eagles, or Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, I still think that all of those could show up at or near Laguna del Lagarto.  Even if you don’t get lucky and find any of those rarities, you can still expect high quality birding like we experienced last weekend. The birding on the way to the lodge isn’t all that shabby either and that’s how I will officially start this trip report:

7:30 A.M., just outside of Pital on September 7th, 2012

Susan and I would have been there earlier but we couldn’t help but make stops at Cinchona and check out the La Tabla-Pital road. Dawn at Cinchona yielded vocalizations of Nightingale Wren, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and a few others. The extensive fields and pastures that flank the La Tabla road aren’t exactly good for bird diversity so don’t waste your time with it. Maximize birding time by taking the Aguas Zarcas-Pital road instead. The most interesting thing birdwise was the large number of swallows that gave us close looks as they foraged close to the ground (Cliff, Barn, and Bank in that order of abundance).

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Migrant swallows on a wire in Costa Rica.

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This ironic sign says that this farm prohibits hunting and protects animals and forest. With that sterile, huge pineapple field behind it, there must be invisible parentheses that enclose “except when we can grow pineapples”. Please do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica until they are grown in a sustainable manner because they replace all vegetation in huge areas and are doused with showers of pesticides.

Once we reached Pital, some forest patches began to appear and with them came expected lowland forest birds like Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracari, Red-lored Parrots, White-crowned Parrots, Bright-rumped, and a surpise Cinnamon Woodpecker out in the open!

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This beautiful woodpecker is fairly common in forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills but is usually much more difficult to see than this one.

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After it flew off, a pair of Olive-throated Parakeets posed for pictures.

The further north we drove along that bumpy road, the more forest we saw.

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Some of it was close.

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But most of it was distant. It’s hard to tell from this image but there was intact, primary forest visible on both sides of the road once we got halfway to Laguna from Pital.

Although scanning the distant forest canopy didn’t turn up anything exciting, we had plenty of birds closer to the road including Slaty Spinetail, a heard only Great Antshrike, Gray-capped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Gray-headed Cachalacas, Laughing and Bat Falcons, and 2 Snowy Cotingas (!). No luck at the few lagoons we saw but they could certainly harbor small kingfishers, Agami Heron, and other uncommon species.

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Promising lagoon along road.

10:00 A.M.

We reached the lodge with more than 80 species under our belts and after a quick check into the rooms, the birding continued on the restaurant balcony. It turns out that the feeders are slow at this time of the year but we still got close looks at

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comical Montezuma Oropendolas

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jewel-like Green Honeycreeper

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Red-legged and Shining Honeycreepers. The bird on the right is a female Shining while the other one is a male Red-legged in basic plumage.

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Black-cheeked Woodpecker trying to bring vogueing back into style by striking a pose…

We got our first group of migrating Mississippi Kites around this time with a flock of about 150 birds. On Sunday, I saw a distant massive kettle of at least 1,500 kites! As is typical of lowland rainforest sites, the more we looked the more we saw. A migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher perched on a distant snag. Short-billed Pigeons flew into nearby trees along with two species of tityras. Scaly-breasted Hummingbird foraged in nearby Heliconias. Once the group got together, we ventured into the forest and quickly encountered a bunch of birds feasting on a fruiting Melastome. Bright-rumped Attila, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Blue Dacnis, Plain-colored Tanager, and our first of many White-vented Euphonias popped into view along with a bold Slate-colored Grosbeak.

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Slaty-tailed Trogon.

As we walked down the trail, a pair of Great Curassows made an appearance and several Crested Guans were seen shortly thereafter. Heading back outside the forest and into the nearby gardens turned up Lesser Greenlets, Shining Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and a distant but scopeable trio of Pied Puffbirds. The nunbirds didn’t show but we were entertained nonetheless. The lavender crown of a flowering Dypterix panamensis or “Almendra” was buzzed by at least a dozen hummingbirds. It was quite the challenge to identify them so high in the air and who knows what we missed but we did manage to find Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, Scaly-breasted, and Violet-headed along with Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As Red-lored and a few Mealy Parrots flew to their roosts on rapid, shallow wing beats, we finally heard the telltale screams of macaws. Laguna del Lagarto is kind of famous for Great Green Macws but we hadn’t seen any yet. Where were they? The lodge’s local guide, Didier, told us that they were in Nicaragua or just somewhere else at this time of the year but  a few could still show up or fly past. The screeching macaws flew into view in the misty distance before settling into an isolated tree. The scope was needed to see their colors but we saw red, blue, and yellow instead of green. They were Scarlets!

I had been hearing that more Scarlet Macaws were being sighted in those northern forests. It’s a welcome and wonderful sign to see these majestic birds coming back after being pretty much extirpated from the Caribbean slope. While I was eying their antics through my Swarovski, three other macaws suddenly flew past and yes, those were green!  Unfortunately no one else got onto to them so all I could do was hope that they would do another flyby in the morning or the following evening.

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Sadly, the only close Great Green Macaws we had were the ones on signs at the lodge.

We ended the day with around 90 species identified during just one afternoon of birding at the lodge while Susan and I had racked up more than 150 species for that entire day. Dinner was excellent and sleep even better but not before a search for nightbirds turned up a brief flyover of what was probably a Mottled Owl.

Stay tuned for part dos!

To see more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica, see Costa Rica Living and Birding at http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress

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Introduction

Birding on September 11th, 2001

I have been meaning to write this post for a while and it just occurred to me that given today’s date, now would be a good time to relate my 9/11 story. I wasn’t in New York at the time and was actually almost as far away from the USA and civilization as one could get but never felt closer to home. I wasn’t in Costa Rica either but this blog is as good a place to tell my story as any. If you were hoping for something related to birding in Costa Rica rather than another neotropical birding hotspot where this story takes place, check back real soon for posts about a recent trip to Laguna del Lagarto and what went down at the first Costa Rican Birding and Nature Festival.

September 11th, 2001, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), Peru

It was a usual, fine morning deep back in the wonderful, roadless, trackless expanse of rainforest known as Tambopata. As a volunteer on the Tambopata Macaw Project, I would have boarded a boat just before dawn to be dropped off on the island across from the Tambopata Clay Lick, but it was my day off from counting the screaming masses of parrots, parakeets, and macaws. Instead of heading to the other side of the river with count sheets, a lawn chair, and optics, I birded sans observation rules for the pure fun of it. That meant searching for whatever lifers I still needed on the 500 plus list at TRC while listening and looking for anything else that came my way. Among the network of trails near the research station/eco-lodge,I opted for  taking one that accessed floodplain forest, bamboo thickets, and small oxbow lakes. As with all of the trails in this wilderness area, it could potentially turn up anything from a rare Harpy Eagle to tanager flocks or even a Jaguar while giving a fair chance at niceties like Agami Heron, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, and a host of antbirds.

Needless to say, birding the trails at TRC is exciting from the moment you step into the forest until the second you come back to the research station (and even then, it’s still pretty exciting all the way back downriver to Puerto Maldonado). I can’t say that I saw a Harpy on that morning or any once in a lifetime sighting. I encountered the species I usually ran into although the horrible events that were to take place later that morning overshadowed any memories of them. Those would have been birds like Amazonian Antpitta- a secretive inhabitant of bamboo thickets that reveals itself with slow-tempo, low, whistled notes. I probably saw one of the Chestnut-capped Puffbirds that lived along that trail and must have heard the inconspicuous “tink” call of the Fiery-capped Manakin and the chortle of bamboo-loving White-lined Antbirds.

I am sure I also had a few other choice species along with flyovers of macaws, White-eyed Parakeets, and White-bellied Parrots. Those and so many other avian candy store Amazonian species were par for the course at TRC. Volunteering for the macaw project was a blissful, carpe diem time surrounded by a ridiculous array of birds, plants, amphibians, and everything else that comes together to form those Amazonian rainforests. I also worked with dozens of fantastic people, including biologist guides from Lima and friends who were born and raised in Tambopata, Peru. Two of those people were Marcos and Ingrid. Like several of the staff at TRC and Posada Amazonas, Marcos originally hailed from Cuzco. He was a short, twenty-something guy with curly hair accompanied by a ready smile and laugh. He was the main cook at TRC and loved what he did. I’ m pretty sure he still works there and must be quite the accomplished chef by now.

Ingrid, a cheerful gal from Ica, was interning at Rainforest Expeditions and having the time of her life while learning how to show the Tambopata rainforest to guests from around the world. She was always telling me about following the herds of White-lipped Peccaries, and wanted to learn more about the birds at Tambopata while perfecting her English skills. Her passion for nature and  biodiversity were typical of all of the guides at TRC and like many of them, she went on to have some amazing adventures in biodiversity. Ingrid in particular has become a hero in my eyes because she spends most of her time with her equally heroic husband working on sea turtle conservation from the coasts of Central America to California.

I can’t help but talk about Marcos and Ingrid because they were the ones who broke the news to me when I got back to the lodge. As usual, after an hour or two of early morning birding, I made my way back to TRC and  walked into the kitchen to eat breakfast and catch some conversation while being semi-entertained by the exotic sounds of techno-cumbia. I think just Marcos and Ingrid were there and they were listening to the radio, our only form of contact with the outside world. It was in Spanish and not all that clear but I could see that they were listening to it more closely than other mornings. Marcos was leaning close to the radio and Ingrid had a pained look on her face. She looked truly worried so I asked what was going on.

Although I could speak Spanish, I think I had to hear them tell me what happened at least four times and when Ingrid told me, I recall seeing the same careful, resolved look as one who bears the news of a family member’s death. She didn’t tell me to sit down but she was seated and it seemed like I should sit down too. She said, calmly “Patrick, they are saying that planes flew into the World Trade Center and maybe it was a terrorist attack.” I am sure my first response was, “What?” because what she told me most definitely did not compute. I had to have her and Marcos tell me something like four times because I must have heard wrong. After all, even though I speak Spanish well, what they said just didn’t sound right. How could that make any sense? A bombing or some kind of terrorist attack at the World Trade Center? No way! They must be saying something else. I don’t think it was until I actually heard the fuzzy voice of the woman on the radio say that planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and that it appeared to be an attack did I actually accept what happened and even then I wasn’t entirely sure.

There were no pictures, no television footage, and I didn’t know how bad it was but I knew it had the potential for being incredibly bad. As the news sunk in, I felt my heart dragged down with it into a well of horrible realization. I probably swore and by the concerned, almost frightened looks on the faces of Ingrid and Marcos, I probably didn’t look like someone who took the news all that well. They were worried too but they hadn’t realized what that day might eventually mean. I said, “There are thousands of people who work in those towers and 30,000 of them might have been killed! There is almost certainly going to be a war over this.” I don’t know if I said, “let’s hope there isn’t” but I would have liked to have said that.

While we were taking in this horrible news, a small group of British birders came to TRC to walk the trails. One of them was a young naturalist who was volunteering at Explorer’s Inn and like everyone who camped out on the river island, his arms were just dotted like Measles in no-see-um bites. Tourists who wanted to experience the clay lick (“the colpa”) but didn’t stay at TRC camped for the night on that island and this was one of those groups. It was a good site for the rare Scarlet-hooded Barbet, Fine-barred Piculet, and other cool species with equally cool names but it was also a haven for blood-sucking, six-legged freaks. While scratching bites and applying enough DEET to melt your prize Leico binos,  they awoke to the Psittacid extravaganza on the clay lick and followed that up with a visit to TRC.

Since this group was focused on birds, I asked if I could join them. I was relieved when they let me tag along because I felt a strong need to do something other than hanging around the kitchen at TRC but I didn’t want to go birding alone. I wanted companionship and didn’t want to talk about the attacks just yet. So as not to ruin the birding, I kept the news under wraps and focused on finding things like Goeldi’s and White-lined Antbirds and Fiery-capped Manakin. We did find a few of those and other birds and I daresay they were pleased to have someone along who knew the vocalizations. I was happy just to be out with other birders.

The walk was a short one because they had to head back downstream. Before they got on the boat, I somehow managed to tell them about the World Trade Center. I said I didn’t know exactly what had happened but told them what I knew- that the towers had apparently been bombed or attacked with planes. I don’t know who those birders were but I do recall the horrified, worried looks on their faces that must have mirrored my own after Ingrid and Marcos had related the same news to me.

After they left, we were once again left to the radio for news until a boat eventually arrived with a newspaper that showed us that nightmare of the towers in flames. My friend and fellow American macaw project volunteer Rudy Gelis arrived on one of those boats. We were both pretty shaken up by the attacks but most of all, we realized we were damn mad. I wanted to find out who was responsible and I didn’t feel like bringing them to justice because my emotions were urging me to sing the war song.  We both hoped that the attackers would be found out and dealt with but also knew that an entire nation probably wasn’t behind the attacks.

Many trips ended up being cancelled to Tambopata in the following months while others took advantage of the low airfares. I met and shared Amazonian birds with some of those people and they told me about happenings and reactions in the states as a result of 9/11. I loved soaking up the birds and diversity of Tambopata, Peru but I never missed Niagara Falls, New York more than during those days right after September 11th, 2001.

Categories
earthquakes

How to Watch Birds in Costa Rica during an Earthquake

The answer to the title of this post can be found at the end if you don’t want to read about the 7.6 earthquake that happened today. I wrote this about 20 minutes after the quake hit.

I was going to write a post today about listening for nocturnal migrants in Costa Rica but given the circumstances of 9 AM on September 5th, I opted for an earthquake theme. As I write, we don’t have electricity, phone service, or Internet but the battery on this Toshiba laptop works! Every time there is a strong earthquake in Costa Rica, I guess it shakes some wires loss to disrupt any sort of electrical service. This morning, we finally got hit with another strong earthquake. I don’t say “finally” meaning that I was hoping for a plate tectonic jolt. No, I use that “finally” in terms of trepidation, dread, and probability.

Costa Rica is one of the newer land forms on the globe. Unlike the ancient, uplifted Appalachians, the mountains here are maybe 3 or 5 million years old at most and the same dynamics that caused their formation are still going on to a certain degree. Since I am not a geologist, there are probably inaccuracies in what I just wrote but I think readers should get the picture. To sum things up, this place is seismically active. We’ve got a few active volcanoes, others that are sleeping, and dozens, maybe hundreds of fault lines. Sometimes the earth on either side of these big cracks slips or crashes together and the darn ground moves. The closer that deep earth movement is to the surface, the stronger the shaking. This morning, the epicenter was almost as close to the surface as the Cinchona quake a few years ago and the shaking was uncomfortably and disconcertingly long.

As with most quakes I have felt in Costa Rica, it started out as a gentle swaying of the ground back and forth. When it got stronger and the rumbling noises started, I called Miranda to my side, picked her up and went into the backyard. As the ground kept on shaking and we saw the house moving back and forth, I realized that this was at least no 4 or 5 on the Richter scale. It was bigger and when it gets above 5, things can get serious faster than the flight of a White-collared Swift. We heard a few objects crash down, I started to feel a bit dizzy from the swaying of the ground, the neighborhood dogs were barking, and Miranda clung to me in fright. Thankfully, everything calmed back down before any serious damage was done and we got in the car to go to Mirandas pre-k. I told her it was an earthquake. She told me that “the planet was moving!”

Given the strength of the quake, I wasn’t sure if school would still be open or if roads might be blocked by fallen posts. The guard at the gate was pretty frighted and said that he could see the ground moving back and forth and thought that the big, cement, telephone line posts were going to fall down. Thankfully, none of the above occurred, I brought Miranda to school and came back here to a house bereft of the refrigerator hum. On the radio, I heard that the quake was 7.6 on the Richter scale and that its epicenter was in the Nicoya peninsula. No damage reported yet but I will be surprised if that’s the case. I can hear helicopters flying around no doubt to asses damage but wont get the full story until later today or even tomorrow.

Now as far as birding goes during an earthquake, since the shaking doesn’t last too long, the actual quake itself won’t disrupt any birding activity and would actually provide a rare glimpse into bird behavior during a strong quake. Will they fly into the air? Take shelter in trees? Do certain types of bi9rds act differently? I didn’t notice any activity at all but since I wasn’t actively watching birds at the time, those observations might not count for much anyways. If you are in a hotel, I am sure that the employees would guide you to a safe zone and there are signs for that too. If outside, it would be better to be in an open field than standing under the trees. With that in mind, I’m not sure what one should do while birding in a forest! Maybe stand against the trunk of a big, stable tree so as to decrease the chances of being hit by falling branches?

While driving, I would say to pull off to the side of the road except that in Costa Rica, the lack of shoulders and presence of eager ditches makes this a bad idea in many areas. Probably best to stop right where you are in the road and wait it out. I think that the most dangerous places during a quake in Costa Rica are on mountain roads, especially beneath a steep slope due to possible landslides and rock falls. Of course there is little or no time to react but if you can, try to immediately get away from any steeply sloped spots.

Also, be prepared when traveling around Costa Rica by carrying such basic essentials as drinking water, high energy snacks, and a small first aid kit. Really, those should be carried for any type of travel to any country in any case. After all is said and done, though, your chances of even feeling a small earthquake during two or three weeks in Costa Rica aren’t very good. People who live in Costa Rica might feel quakes in the 3-5 Richter scale range a maybe 4 times a year and I haven’t felt a strong one like this since the Cinchona quake three years ago. Since I hadn’t felt any quakes for several months, I wondered if we were in for something strong so I can’t say I’m too surprised that a fairly large earthquake happened this morning. I hope no one was injured. I am also supposed to go on a trip to Laguna del Lagarto on Friday, I hope the roads are open!

The electricity is back on now and reports are coming. Thankfully, no injuries yet but buildings are damaged in many parts of the country, especially near the epicenter where some roofs have collapsed. The hospital in Puntarenas was damaged and subsequently evacuated and most businesses, government ministries, and schools have closed for the day and sent employees and students home. A bunch of aftershocks have also been reported although I haven’t felt any.

By the time I posted this, reports have come in about damage to dozens of buildings and structures in Guanacaste and elsewhere. Two deaths have been reported so far (one a heart attack and the other someone who perished beneath a falling wall), and several roads are closed. Let’s hope it’s nothing worse than that. Given the intensity of the quake, it’s a welcome surprise to hear about so few injuries and deaths.