Sometimes you go birding and it’s nice but pretty much an average experience. Other times you head into the field and end up seeing an uncommon bird or two. Those days are always special and appreciated but they are overshadowed like an eclipse when you see a bunch of good birds and the first documentation for a country. I suppose a day like that could be called something like “Mega Day”, “Amazing Memorable Day”, or just “Holy Crap Day!”. Since I am obviously leading up to it, yes, we had a Holy Crap Day last week.
Even if we hadn’t seen such a nice bunch of birds, it would have still been a great day just because Susan and I were birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann, the bloggers behind the Birds of Passage as well as being birding adventurers extraordinaire.
Given the time of year, the fact that Josh and Kathi still needed that mangrove lurker known as the Rufous-necked Wood Rail, and my own personal desire to see a bunch of shorebirds, we started off the day by meeting at Mata de Limon. It was low tide and I hoped that the exposed mud flats would host terns, gulls, waders, and a rarity. As a reminder that birding is an endeavor replete with a high degree of unexpected happenings, the mud flats looked inviting but were totally lacking in birds.
No sweat, we wanted to check the mangroves anyways. The first mangrove stop at Mata de Limon was likewise non-birdy but further back, we connected with the major target of the day. While logging dry forest species like Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, and Banded Wren, Kathi suddenly said, “There it is”. “It” could only have been the wood rail and yes, there it was creeping along the edge of the mangroves. We got fantastic views of this choice bird and even watched it pick at a fallen mango!
After connecting with the famous photo bomber species, we checked the other side of the estuary and saw nothing special before continuing on to lagoons at Guacalillo. We took the Guacimo road to get there and despite not really stopping for birds, got nice looks at thick-knee, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, magpie jays, and other dry forest species. The main stop was a lagoon down at Bajamar but it ended up being pretty low on shorebirds. Nevertheless, we were still entertained by migrating swallows, a brief yet pretty much certain Black Swift (!) possibly migrating with the swallows, and distant soaring Hook-billed Kite.
Then it was off to the lagoons at Guacalillo. Not much at the seawatch but one of the lagoons was pretty darn good for shorebirds. We had 10 or so species with highlights being Stilt Sandpiper and great looks at a Baird’s (my first for the country!).
After checking those birds out, we realized that it was time to leave when we started to melt under the 11 o’clock coastal sun. Next on the list was Chomes and we would get there right after high tide. Chomes is the best, accessible shorebird site in the country and on Saturday, oh how it delivered. As on other days, most of the birds were concentrated in a pool near the beach and on this day, we estimated around 2,000 shorebirds resting and foraging on the exposed mud flats.
With so many birds, it’s hard to know where to look first so we started with the ones that were close to us. These were:
Further out, there were lots more Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, lots of Black-bellied Plovers, and at least five American Golden Plovers.
The birds got up and flew and then when they came back down, we found a fine Wilson’s Phalarope (good year bird!), and some Pectorals flew in.
We started checking through the distant group of shorebirds once again and I saw something that didn’t fit. It was far off and all I could see was that it was darker and had pale lores. I asked Susan if I could use her scope to check the bird out and upon doing that, knew that we had something good but the ID still wouldn’t come through the haze of my conscious mind because it was so far off my BIRDAR.
As it slowly dawned that we were probably looking at a Hudsonian Godwit, I asked if anyone had a field guide showing it to make sure since I have only seen the species once several years ago in New Jersey. Nor is it pictured in the Costa Rica field guide because there is just one record from the 70s.
I recall it as being one of those very unlikely species that Robert Dean and I had talked about. One that we figured, well, how likely is it for someone to see it since studies have shown that it basically migrates over Costa Rica during the spring, doing a quick godwit skip from Colombia to lagoons in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. We knew that occasional birds or so had to stop in Costa Rica at some time or another but what are the chances of being at that spot during that day or even hour? Well, as it turns out, the chances fell into place on Saturday because we had a Hudwit!
We all got to watch the bird for more than an hour as it rested and walked around a little bit before eventually taking flight. Although we tried to get the message out as best we could, when it flew, we knew that no one else was going to see it. When the bird flew, it reminded me of an airplane leaving for a long trip. It first flew south and then quickly turned north as it gained altitude. It continued to gain altitude as it flew straight north and this was no slow flapping. It flew super fast with super ease and disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds!
That bird was headed to Mexico or further and it probably got there by the next day. One hopeful birder did check nearby Punta Morales on Sunday but of course it wasn’t there. After the godwit, we gave a couple attempts at Clapper (Mangrove) Rail sans success and checked Punta Morales. Very few birds there but after a day with a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Baird’s Sandpiper, Costa Rica’s first fully documented Hudsonian Godwit, and 21 other species of shorebirds, I couldn’t have cared if we only saw Great-tailed Grackles. We celebrated the Holy Crap Day at the Cuenca Restaurant (recommended) and made the long drive back home. Josh and Kathi went to Manuel Brenes and Pocosol (can’t wait to hear about that) and Las Bromelias is next on my plate- should be good!