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Fun, Easy, and Exciting Ferry Birding in Costa Rica

At first glance, a ferry doesn’t sound like fun. First, you wait in line with a vehicle. Next, you drive said vehicle on to a flat, square thing that is supposed to be a boat. After stowing the car, you usually find some place to sit and wait out the trip. It’s boring, even in this ridiculous day and age of the mobile phone. In some places, it also becomes frightening because other ferrys on the same routes have sank with horrible consequences.

BUT, take the right ferry and it’s fun, easy birding. That pretty much describes the ferry between Puntarenas and Paquera, Costa Rica except that it’s also cheap, fun, easy birding! Yep, if you can find a parking spot at Frank’s Cabinas, you can leave the car for about $8 for the whole day instead of paying around $50 to take the car back and forth on the square boat. As for a passenger ticket, that’s a mere 800 colones, or around $1.75.

Even if you didn’t plan on watching birds, this particular ferry would still be fun. The crossing is about an hour, the weather and scenery is typically beautiful, you could have a cold beer on the boat (I have seen several passengers bring their own), and, best of all, you probably won’t get seasick! The swells are usually light, and since it’s only an hour, there’s hardly any chance of being afflicted by the nasty mal de mer.

The ferry.

As for birds, yes, there are those too and you never know what might show up. No, the ferry won’t chum or chase anything but the tall, flat deck is a good vantage point to scan and even scope stuff out in the gulf, and all sorts of stuff can show.

Scanning...

Although the birding won’t be as exciting as pounding the waves straight out to the continental shelf and beyond, it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable and still turns up pelagics.

I would rather take the ferry than this boat.

Since Inca Tern had been recently seen near the ferry, myself and a few friends decided to do a ferry birding trip on Sunday. We knew that the Inca would be a crap shoot but we also knew that we would probably see something good, and since the ferry is so easy to do, it was almost too easy to drive down to Puntarenas, park at Frank’s, and get on the boat.

But before we even got there, we picked up the first good bird while checking the cruise ship dock. After setting up the scope, I focus in on the dock and the first bird that comes into view is a jaeger! A subadult Parasitic is out there sitting on the dock during the month of June. Odd indeed and a very welcome year bird.

It was sharing the dock with Brown Boobies, a couple of Laughing Gulls, Sandwich Terns, and a few Royals. In other words, nothing crazy but that’s alright because we knew that we would get a few more good birds from the boat.

But before we boarded the ferry, birds were already visible from the point of Puntarenas and scanning them turned up a bunch of Black Terns, Brown Boobies, and, suddenly, a shearwater flies into view! It was pretty far out but still identifiable as a Galapagos Shearwater, one of our targets for the day and a lifer for all sans moi.

Welcome to the ferry.

When the boat got underway, we constantly scanned our surroundings and started seeing more Brown Boobies, and scattered groups of Black Terns foraging for small fish and perched on driftwood.

At one point, a Blue-footed Booby flew past.

Blue-footed Booby

Not long into the trip, a small squadron of Galapagos Shearwaters glided low over the water, and flew into the gulf.

Galapagos Shearwaters
Galapagos Shearwaters

More scanning kept revealing more Black Terns but we also enjoyed the super close views of Brown Boobies.

Brown Booby flying close.
A Black Tern on driftwood.

As the boat approached one small group of terns, I noticed a larger brown bird with them and immediately said, “Sooty Tern”! although I actually meant to say, “Brown Noddy!” That’s what happens when you see a lifer. Excitement blurs the neurosignals and you don’t say what you really mean. No matter, because we all got perfect looks at a Brown Noddy, right next to the boat. Since the noddy is only present in Costa Rica during the summer, I was hoping we would see it. Success!

It was in a group of Black Terns like this.

In Paquera, we got off the boat , bought return tickets, and then got right back on. This time, we took front seats, and once again, scanned the water from left to right and kept checking the skies for a tropicbird (Red-billed is seen now and then).

This Brown Booby accompanied us.

The noon-time ride back was sunny and slow, and still lacked storm-petrels, but we got more looks at Black Terns, saw a Snowy Egret perched on driftwood in the middle of the gulf, had more looks at Brown Booby, and even spotted a couple of guys in a raft that needed a rescue!

Help!

After docking, we called it an early day and drove back up to the San Jose area. Next time, I would love to take the 5 a.m. ferry and come back on the 9 a.m. ferry. This being an El Nino year, and the Gulf of Nicoya being an important, nutrient-rich body of water, you never know what might show up.

2 replies on “Fun, Easy, and Exciting Ferry Birding in Costa Rica”

Pat,

This sounds great. Cheri and I are already planning on making the drive down to the ferry when we are in CR this winter. Like your truly excellent guide to finding birds in CR you provide the details to make this very accessible to someone like me from out of country. Keep up the good work please!
Mike

Mike- Glad to hear that. It really is much easier to do than I expected and always offers a chance at one or more pelagics. Not many, but something good is always possible. Thanks for the kind words about the book.

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