The ferry is the poor person’s pelagic. Or one for people with limited time. Or, on some routes, a quick fix for folks who suffer from wave action. However you want to call it, a ferry is an easy way to see birds from a boat, and by “birds” I mean the ones that are especially hard to see from shore. The Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is the easiest way to see some pelagics in Costa Rica and although you can’t count on Pterodromas or other wicked flying denizens of the super deep, the boat does cross one of the richest estuarine gulfs in Central America. I’ve been thinking more and more about that gulf. Like about what lives in those waters and what comes there from the ocean to feed. In terms of birds, it’s pretty darn important. The mud flats are used by resident wading birds and thousands of migrant shorebirds, the mangroves are home to the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and nurseries for thousands of fish, and the waters provide food for dolphins, tuna, thousands of Black Terns (which seem to be there all year long), and various other seabirds.
It’s the “various others” that draws me to the gulf, especially during these El Nino times. Storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, and Blue-footed Booby have been regular, and many other birds are possible. Thanks to near daily trips and reports by Jorge Zuniga Lopez, we have heard about Sabine’s Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Costa Rica’s first Peruvian Booby! Since a couple of these were seen the past month, yesterday, I made time for a trip down to Puntarenas to watch from the ferry. I came prepared with snacks, binos, scope, camera, and a vigilant mindset that would hopefully yield new year birds and additions to my Costa Rica list.
My first stops were the cruise ship pier and the lighthouse area in Puntarenas, two spots that can turn up pelagics. The pier had a couple of boobies along with regular terns and Brown Pelicans but I just could’t turn that juvenile Brown Booby into a Red-footed. Over at the lighthouse, scanning with a scope revealed swarms of Black Terns along with one Elegant, and a few Royals and Sandwich Terns. Eventually, I spotted a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters, pretty far off but still identifiable. That point really is the most accessible place to see some pelagics from shore in Costa Rica because it’s close to a spot where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf. You could easily go and see nothing but on one occasion, I could even identify Black Storm-Petrels there with binoculars.
The ferry got underway around 9 and I started seeing birds shortly thereafter. Most were Black Terns.
But, a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters also made an appearance, one right in front of the boat!
Further on, I saw a Blue-footed Booby. Oddly, one of the only boobies seen that day. Other days have resulted in several.
Eventually, scanning the hordes of Black Terns on a drift line turned up a Brown Noddy.
Interestingly, I didn’t see storm-petrels until the return ride to Puntarenas around 11:30 and noon. Unfortunately, none came very close to the ferry but they gave me enough studies to watch several Black Storm-Petrels, one or two Least Storm-Petrels, and just as I was about to give up scanning while the boat moved up and down, one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!
Although I didn’t get my Sabine’s Gull nor see any mega rarity, I did pick up three year birds (two Storm-Petrels and Least Tern). Once again, I also exited the ferry feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of what can be seen in the Gulf of Nicoya. What flew in after the ferry went past? What happens to be visiting the gulf today, especially the deeper parts? If you have the time, the ferry is easy enough to do. Park the vehicle at Franks Cabinas just north of the ferry ($8 for the whole day), buy a ticket for 810 colones (maybe $1.50), and get on board. After getting off the ferry in Paquera, just walk right back through the ticket area, buy another $1.50 ticket for the return trip, and scan for birds on the way back. The trip takes an hour and a half. Make sure to get on first and pick a spot right up front on the top deck.