Who says you can’t go extreme when it comes to birding? Those of us familiar with the ins and outs of our avian-focused hobby (or lifestyle) know that birdwatching is nothing like the old-fashioned stereotype of some clumsy, eye-glass wearing person stumbling around the woods with binos around the neck, wide-brimmed hat on the head, butterfly net in one hand, and an invisible sign in the other that clearly reads, “Make Way for Monsenor Non-Cool”!
Personally, I would love to meet someone like that while out in the woods but have yet to see anyone like that anywhere. Instead, we watch birds while sporting clothes that are engineered for the field. We use high quality optics with finesse, know how to survive in the desert (well, some of us do), trudge up mountains to look for rosy-finches and ptarmigans, and help monitor and protect the avian realm. Sometimes, we also do Big Days and it doesn’t get much more extreme than that.
When modern birders can’t find the place where they want to go birding, they just stop off at a bar to check the map. Note that although there is a wide-brimmed hat in this image, it says, “Titleist” and not “Tilly”.
As March rolled to an end, time was running out for another Big Day in Costa Rica. Ever since my last attempt in March 2012, I had thought about the best plans for breaking both the country record and the world record. My best idea was to start on the Pacific slope in the afternoon and finish up on the Caribbean slope the next morning. It was going to be ideal for counting the feathered wealth of Carara, and ticking off Caribbean slope species from the steamy lowlands on up to the Oak forests at 2,300 meters on Poas, all while getting a fair night’s sleep. However, like many things that seem too good to be true, my plan did not fit into the ABA Big Day rules because it would have spanned two calendar days instead of one.
Flame-throated Warbler was one of our high-elevation targets. I think we missed it during our stop at Poas last year.
Back to the drawing board I went and choosing the route and schedule was engineered around probabilities. While you can count on most breeding birds to be in their territory in temperate zone habitats, rainforests are another story. Scout as much as you like but that Masked Tityra might be in one area on Sunday and nowhere to be seen on Monday. There are tons of birds to see in rainforest but all of that diversity comes with a hitch; most species have large territories and are more or less naturally rare. Many birds also seem to wander around in search of fruiting or flowering trees and they don’t always sing either. These and other factors add so much unpredictability to the mix that spending a certain amount of time in the right habitat becomes more important than trying to make stops for each species.
For example, while you could spend a few minutes looking and listening for a Chestnut-backed Antbird in a patch of forest where you have heard them in the past, you are better off skipping that patch for a larger area of forest that you haven’t checked because the bigger area of forest will probably hold Chestnut-backed Antbirds while giving a better chance at a greater number of species.
Spending more time in a larger area of rainforest than a forested ravine might give us some uncommon species like a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.
Since so many of these tropical birds also happen to be binocular shy, catching the dawn chorus for maximum effect is also imperative for a high count. Time spent in each habitat also needs to be more or less correlated with the number of species in each habitat, wetlands must be visited, and every possible angle visited. One such angle involves migrants. Hearing nocturnal migrants and seeing them during the day could add 20 birds to the list. Although that depends on whether or not a wave of migrants happens to be passing through, it’ s still an important factor to take into consideration. On the non-bird front, driving times are a critical factor as are such factors beyond our control as rain and wind.
With all of those factors in mind, I opted for the following route:
1. Stay overnight at Tirimbina and be there for the dawn chorus at the edge of a good block of lowland forest and open habitats for a double whammy of forest and edge species.
2. Before the dawn chorus, check a wetland near El Gavilan.
3. Mid-morning stop at Virgen del Socorro and Cinchona for middle elevation species.
4. Hopefully get some birds from the car while heading up to Varablanca.
5. A stop in high elevation habitats on Poas around noon.
6. Drive down to the coast, maybe picking up a few species on the way, but this is mostly driving time of around 2 hours.
7. Afternoon in dry forest habitats on the Guacimo Road.
8. Swing by a coastal lagoon at Bajamar for waterbirds.
9. Drive to the Bijagual Road for humid forest species in late afternoon and dusk.
10. Keep looking for nightbirds until we decide to give up (assuming that we weren’t going to keep going until midnight).
So, that was the route and I think it’s a good one. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to check every part of the route in the days before the count and that turned out to be a critical error but I just didn’t have time to do it. Starting at Tirimbina was good because it’s that much closer to Virgen del Socorro. We didn’t start at La Selva for that reason, it would have been too expensive to do that, and birds would be similar in any case (and maybe even better at Tirimbina).
Of course, the other important part of the picture is the team. I had hoped to have the same team as last year but March is the busiest time of the year for guiding so we would be bereft of Juan Diego’s impressive birding eyes and ears. I had hoped that Robert Dean could join us but he couldn’t make it either so this year’s team turned out to include the lightning eyes and driving reflexes of Susan Blank and the determination and birding experience of your’s truly.
I will save readers the suspense by saying that we did not break any records but I hope you tune in to parts dos and tres in any case!