A couple of weeks ago, Susan Blank, Robert Dean, and I ventured out into the Costa Rican wilds to identify as many birds as we could. Although the birding Big Day to end all Big days didn’t officially start until we put on our birding ninja head bands (I wish I had one but they were only figurative), the Big Day really began in January, 2014. That was when we began to think about and discuss our strategy. With the help of personal experience and eBird, we defined and refined the route. Times were taken between key sites to see if we could manage that extra two or five minutes. The road status site for Costa Rica was checked and rechecked. Targets were planned, energy bars were purchased, we had enough yuca chips to keep us going for days, and we were ready to break all records!
Here are some of the factors we took into account to increase our chances of hearing and seeing more species in less time (because that is the basic goal of a Big Day of course):
- Dawn starting Point: Since dawn chorus is key to picking up dozens of forest species, the point for starting the day is of essential importance. Instead of starting out on the Caribbean slope as we had done on past Big Days, we opted for getting into the dawn chorus on the Pacific slope at the Bijagual Road. We opted for that birdy spot because this eliminated the chance of getting rained out in the morning on the Caribbean slope, and the Bijagual Road would give us a chance at hearing many rainforest species in Carara National Park, catch birds as they flew to and from morning roosts, and pick out birds perched in the canopy of the forest.
- Enough time to check out the Tarcoles estuary: On past attempts, time ran out before we could look for waterbirds at the Tarcoles estuary. This year, we would have time to get our only shorebirds at this one key coastal spot. We would have also liked to include Mata de Limon and Guacalillo but there just wouldn’t be enough time to include those important sites.
- The need to get as many species as possible during the night: Those dark hours can be vital not just for owls, but also for rails, herons, and whatever else might call before dawn than during the light of the day.
- Being acutely aware of the time: We knew that we couldn’t allow ourselves to allocate more time to areas that wouldn’t yield as many species. This was why we only gave ten or so minutes for dry forest species.
These were some of the main factors we took into account, now this is how we spent February 22, 2014:
12:00 am: The day starts but we watch birds in our dreams because we didn’t see how two extra hours would give us any extra birds. I know, what were we thinking (!) but honestly, we would have just roamed the back roads of the windy Central Valley like bino-toting zombies.
2:00 am-3:30 am: Now, we could officially start! I drove over to Susan’s, read the ABA Big Day rules, loaded the car with various food and drink, and off we went! There was a big moon in a beautiful night sky as we drove over to the nearby golf course but nary a Tropical Screech or other owl species called. That’s alright, because we had a back up plan! This involved driving over to the nearby Zamora Estate where we hoped to get owls, a heron or two, and who knows what other night birds. That worked out with a Mottled Owl upon arrival, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and both Boat-billed and Black-crowned Night Herons calling from the ponds. The uncommon Black-crowned was a bonus. We also tried for Barn and Striped Owl sans success. After thanking one of the owners for letting us enter the place in the middle of the night and bidding adieu, it was back off to the highway for a quick night drive to the Cerro Lodge road.
4:15 am-4:45 am: We opted for skipping Orotina for the Black and white Owl because we had just as good a chance for it at Cerro Lodge. This eventually proved to be true as we heard that species, Pacific Screech Owl, another Mottled Owl, and Ferruginous Pygmy owl, along with Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, and Southern Lapwing. No Barn or Striped Owls nor the hoped for thick knee but with ten species under the belt, we were off to a good start!
5:00 am: A quick stop at the croc bridge for the thick knee was aborted after a minute because the traffic was too noisy and no thick knees called anyways.
5:15 am-8:30 am: This was it! We were on the Bijagual Road and as hoped, a Spectacled Owl made it onto the list near Villa Lapas. I’m not sure if we got anything else between then and the “death cicadas” but fortunately, those incredibly loud arthropods stopped their unhealthy din after about 20 minutes. As we could barely hear anything else, we probably missed birds but we did alright (ohh, how I hope those cicadas became meals for other animals in the forest). I’m not sure how many species we got but highlights were much needed target forest birds like Crested Guan, Great Curassow, Ruddy Quail Dove, Gray-chested Dove, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Chesnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, both tinamous, Scarlet Macaw and 5 species of parrots and parakeets, Blue-crowned Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed, Golden-naped, and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, two trogons, Black-mandibled Toucan, Fiery-billed Aracari, Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, 3 manakins, Orange-billed Sparrow, 6 wrens, Painted Bunting, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Gray-headed Tanager, and so on.
We also saw the most Western Tanagers and Philadelphia Vireos we had ever seen in one place in Costa Rica, ever. Those two species must have been migrating because the Western was one of the most common species there (this does not happen in Costa Rica), and Phillies were all over the place. Among those Phillies was also at least one Warbling Vireo, a nice, rare surprise! Despite getting well over 100 species, we were actually missing several key birds. We got Gray and White Hawks but other raptors failed to show or be seen in the canopy (that idea was a bust), very few woodcreepers called (might have been drowned out by the death cicadas), and we saw few birds flying to and from roosts. However, one other bonus on the road was scoping a very distant mud flat that gave us several herons, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill.
8:30 am-11:00 am: This time was dedicated to edge and dry forest species, and coastal birds around Tarcoles and near Cerro Lodge. This worked out for the most part with many targets being found including Yellow-naped Parrot, both caracaras, Osprey, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Kingfisher, bonus Olivaceous Piculet, some mangrove species, and so on. The estuary also turned up some key birds but not a single gull or tern! Just a couple days before then, I had several terns and gulls there but they flew the coupe on the 22nd. We also picked up a few dry forest species on the Cerro Lodge road but not much in the sunny, hot weather.
11:00 am-12:30 pm: It’s a bit hazy now but I think this was when we drove back up the highway (seeing nothing new) to visit the Turrucares reservoir. It took a bit more time than hoped but resulted well with hoped for Least Grebe, 2 ducks, and bonus Keel-billed Toucan. We also got a high flying Short-tailed Hawk while stopping at an intersection.
12:30 pm-2:00 pm: On we went up slope to the Poas area with a quick stop en route for a friendly Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush in an otherwise silent, warblerless forest. Sunny weather was not a good sign and this marked the point where the Big Day began to seriously slow down. We got the hoped for hummingbirds at the Volcan Restaurant but had to work too much for other birds there and further up slope. Several species did show up including Sooty and Mountain Thrush, both silky flycatchers, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, and some other birds but it was pretty quiet and we just didn’t have to time to wait for the birds to show. Our best bird was a surprise Merlin.
2:00 pm-3:00 pm: Part of this time was still spent somewhere around Poas looking for cloud forest species (we got our Prong-billed Barbet) but the luck ran out with road work just before Cinchona. Ouch, there went 20 precious minutes and try as we could to find birds while we waited, only a couple of species showed and called in the sunny weather.
3:30 pm-4:30 pm: A quick stop at Cinchona got us our Green Thorntail and White-bellied Mountain Gem but the fruit feeders were quiet as was the surrounding area. We also picked up Yellow-bellied Elaenia and maybe another bird or two across the street. By 4:30, we finally made it to the Nature Pavilion. This photography hotspot scored us a chachalaca and a few other birds but the area was strangely quiet. We quickly decided to rush over to more forested sites across the river in the hopes of picking up species during the final avian rush of the day.
4:30 pm-5:30 pm: This was the most unexpected hour of the day and the surprise was unwelcome. Basically, the quiet surroundings continued as we saw and heard very few birds for the rest of the day. Most of the hoped for, common species that one usually hears or sees failed to materialize in any way. No Bay Wren, no Black-throated Wren, and so on for many other species. It was very odd and because of this great missing of species, we decided to not bother looking for the handful of night birds we might have still picked up. Instead, we drove home, our final bird being a lone, flyby Green Ibis.
The final tally was 250 species, a total far short of any record but yes, it was another fun, memorable day, as well as being a learning experience. I had to admit that breaking any Big Day record in Costa Rica is unlikely because there are just too many variables. Although you do drive through areas with more than enough species to break every record, the chances of getting enough of those species are diminished by fewer individuals (many species are just not as common as in the past), bird activity slows to a near stop in sunny weather as well as rainy weather so you need something in between, you can miss 40 or more species if you don’t cross paths with mixed flocks, and the birds that frequent the estuary vary quite a bit.
In conclusion, this might be my last Big Day in Costa Rica but it sure would be fun to organize a Costa Rican Birding Rally!