I am sometimes asked about the number of bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or if I am still missing some. Although I have seen a good number of the birds on the Costa Rica list and am approaching 800 birds seen or heard in country, since the list includes more than 900 species, I could add a lot more including several lifers. Granted, most of the gaps on my checklist are very rare vagrants and pelagic species but a choice few are indeed residents like the White-tailed Nightjar and Rufous Nightjar, two species that I should really make more of an effort to see. Another bird that I really, really need to see even though it happens to already be ticked off my country list is a mottled black and white chicken-like marsh bird known as the Spotted Rail. It’s on my country list because I have heard it a few times but since “heard only” species don’t make the grade for my official life list, the elusive Spotted Rail is a major target.
Russet-naped Wood-Rail- Another chicken-like marsh bird that is much more common and much easier to see.
As one might imagine, like so many other chicken like marsh birds, this one is typically a pain. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, this bird is nothing like the secretive yet much more reliable Viginia Rail up north. Search for it and you don’t find it. Search again and you still don’t find it. Maybe you get a brief staccato one time response to playback. Or, maybe just a peaceful swishing of a breeze in the marsh grass that must be hiding a bevy of sulking, skulking rails. Whatever they are doing, they are oh so reluctant to come out and play. With various raptors and demented herons to deal with, I can’t blame them but I sure wish I could catch a break with this bird!
In June, several people did catch a break with Spotted Rails and right in one of the areas where I have briefly heard and tried to see them sans success. Pictures were posted, including images of sooty, fuzzy youngsters! The birds came out onto the sunny track, the observers made jubilant exclamations about hearing them call over and over! It was a veritable bonanza of Spotted Railness, but I wasn’t there to partake in the party. I was out of country at the time but did hope to give it a try after coming back to Costa Rica.
Where the rails were seen.
Try I did with a few friends, leaving the Central Valley at 3 am so we could hopefully reach the rice fields west of Liberia by 6:30 or 7. Although this is of course the dead of the night, believe me, it’s the best time to drive in Costa Rica! As long as you can avoid any racing or inebriated drivers, you can enjoy mostly vehicle-free roads and make excellent time to your destination. We were on track for doing just that but as dawn broke over the lush rainy-season fields of Guanacaste, a wrench (aka spanner) was thrown into the birding works. While talking about some bird related subject or another just south of Canas, the car suddenly coughed and subsequently died. We were able to partially pull off the road (not many shoulders in Costa Rica, even on the Pan-American highway) and quickly set up road triangles in the hopes of keeping speeding trucks from smashing us into oblivion.
During the ordeal, we still remembered to watch birds. Some dry forest species were flying around, especially good numbers of Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Stripe-headed Sparrows were singing as we called the two truck. Fortunately, while doing that, a friendly mechanic stopped and helped us out on Sunday morning, a time when most places are closed. Unfortunately, there was no way that car was starting again and eventually, we towed it to his shop around 6 kilometers up the highway. He figured it was probably the fuel pump and brought us to the bus stop. Luckily, a nearly empty bus came by, we got on, and Spotted Rail quest numero uno was converted into a sleepy bus ride back to the San Jose area.
The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.
Always nice to watch the common yet ever handsome Stripe-headed Sparrow.
Over coffee, we discussed how these sort of things happen and how we could maybe try again if the car could be repaired soon. A few days later, I found out that yes, the car was good! The internal fan belt had broke, it had been fixed, and the car sounded wonderful. When I was once again picked up at 3 am a week after our first attempt, it did indeed sound better than before. In fact, the orange Chevrolet sort of purred. We drove back down through the dark of the night to the Pacific lowlands and once again watched the heat lightning play in the distant sky as dawn broke over green fields punctuated by scattered, umbrella-shaped trees. We drove past Canas, feeling grateful for the mechanic who lived there and talked how we would recommend him to other birders. We zoomed along the lovely new, spacious highway to make up for lost time during road work and just as we approached Liberia, my heart dropped as I heard an odd coughing noise. As much as I wished it was the sound of a large truck two vehicles back, no, sadly, it was the sound of our very own, sick car. We pulled over in a gas station and turned the car off.
“Oh, look, there is some loose piece of plastic under the car, it must be that!”
But it wasn’t. The car wouldn’t start and we stood there in shock as we tried to comprehend how this had happened. As the same dry forest species as the week before called and flew over, and called our mechanic, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were living some Groundhog Day moment. The Spotted Rail was just out of reach, if only we could have broke down next to a marsh! At least much to our good fortune, once again, our mechanic came through and was able to reach a friend with a tow truck, all during the non-working time of Sunday morning. We rode the tow back several kilometers to Canas where Kendall the friendly mechanic was waiting. He was just as surprised as we were, especially when he opened the side of the motor to see that the new internal belt was loose. It should be fixed by now but after two failed attempts to even reach the home of the rail, and on precious birding days at that, I can’t help but feel really reluctant to do another birding trip in that same car. At least we now know a good, friendly, helpful mechanic who lives and works in Canas. I you need one in that area of Costa Rica, I recommend him- his name is Kendall and his number is 89772749. He only speaks Spanish, who knows, maybe he will become a birder- he heard enough about birds in Costa Rica from us!