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A fine morning of birding doesn’t have to include a lifer but when it does, it becomes a fine morning indeed. Like one that includes a high cup of smooth, award winning coffee accompanied by pan du chocolate and the chocolate just happens to have a 75% or higher cocoa component. When the lifer is unexpected, it’s like enjoying that same luxurious little repast accompanied by a winning lottery ticket. Last week, I hit that birding jackpot accompanied by chocolate headed Blue-footed Boobies, deep, dark, coffee-colored storm-petrels, and a sweet set of dry forest birds.

The day started in the middle of the night when we departed the Central Valley at 2:30 am. We needed to reach Puntarenas by 4:30 and since we arrived by 4:00, next time, I’ll be leaving at the almost just as crazily late/early hour of 3:00 am. And given the consistently nice birding surprises from the ferry, I hope to make that next trip within the next two months. Hopefully by then, the ferry dock will be fixed (it suffered some damage yesterday, thankfully after we did our trip), and I will see Sabine’s Gull, phalaropes, and other targets. But, back to the other day when we got that personal birding lottery ticket.

After parking at Frank’s Cabins (which the owners graciously opened at 4:00 am as soon as we called), Susan and I got our 800 colon tickets (that’s less than two bucks), boarded the boat, and walked up to the top deck, right in front. Aside from a flyby Back-crowned Night-Heron, we didn’t see anything else in the pre-dawn darkness but we knew that would change as the day broke over the calm estuarine waters of the Gulf of Nicoya.

The first birds were expected species like Brown Pelicans, flocks of White Ibis moving from roosting sites to mud flats near Puntarenas, frigatebirds, and a smattering of Royal, Sandwich, and Black Terns. When we reached one of the first drift lines, we got onto our first target or “good” bird. As with other occasions when I have seen Galapagos Shearwater, the fluttering, pot-bellied look of this one was revealed after constant scanning of the horizon. A check through the scope assured that it was indeed a Galapagos and not the much more rare Black-vented. We also saw a second bird ten minutes after the first.

An excellent year bird, especially when it can be seen from a quick and easy ferry ride!

As we moved forward on our hour and a half boat trip, we continued to scan the horizon as much as the few swells allowed. No storm-petrels yet nor many other birds but we did see several Blue-footed Boobies, all of which were juveniles.

The summer months are probably the best time to see Blue-footed Boobies in Costa Rica. I wonder where they come from? Cocos Island? Maybe even the Galapagos?

After the ferry docked, we had around two hours to kill before returning on the 9 am boat. Let’s see, not much to do in tiny Paquera and two hours to kill. Yeah, I think I’ll go birding! Fortunately, there is plenty of dry forest habitat around Paquera, most of it in various stages of second growth but still quite a few big trees and on Thursday, August 10, the green, rainy season vegetation overflowed with bird song. As we walked up the road, we heard and saw a good selection of species, the most common of which was Banded Wren.

As with other sites in the southern Nicoya Peninsula, we noticed that White-necked Puffbird was easier to see than many other sites (we saw three over the course of an hour and a half).

We were also entertained by the bright colors of Black-headed Trogons and Turquoise-browed Motmots, and the antics of various other dry forest species. Although we didn’t luck out with any super rare and enigmatic Pheasant Cuckoos, nor any year birds, the activity still made for a refreshing bird-filled break between ferry rides.

Around 8:00, we headed back to the boat, got our tickets, and boarded with a good number of tourists on their way back to the mainland, including one local guide who showed us pictures of Ornate Hawk-Eagle from his garden in La Gamba. Back on the ferry, we scanned with the scope hoping to find groups of feeding birds. No luck there but as the boat got underway, we eventually found birds flying back and forth. Most of these were Black Terns and a few Blue-footed Boobies but eventually, once again, constant scanning turned up different species. This time, they came in the form of a few Least Storm-Petrels doing their bat-like flight in the same area as some foraging Black Terns. Once again, the scope also came in handy to make a positive ID. Not long after, more scanning revealed what I first took to be a Black Storm-Petrel flying in from the south. However, its flight didn’t seem quite right for that species, and sure enough, the scope revealed an extensive white rump. Yes, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, another excellent year bird, and along with the bat-like Least, year bird number three!

Further on, maybe 30 minutes away from Puntarenas, we got our final and best bird of the day. While scanning to the south, we both noticed a larger, darker tern that was foraging with a small group of Black Terns. I figured it would probably be a Brown Noddy but the shape didn’t seem right for that species. The head looked more angular, and while checking through the scope, my jaw dropped when I noticed a distinctive, definite forked tail. Nope, not a Brown Noddy! Off hand,the only other species that came to mind was a juvenile Sooty Tern, a potential lifer!

The bird moved in the same direction as the boat and eventually flew across the bow as it moved towards the inner part of the gulf. Although it was pretty far off, occasional looks through the scope revealed a white flash on the wing linings. Based on illustrations of juvenile Sooty Tern, I had expected more white on the belly but once I got back home and checked images online, I breathed a sigh of successful relief after seeing several images of juvenile Sooty Terns that showed very little white on the belly and matched our bird exactly. Lifer achieved and a not very expected one either! In Costa Rica, this species mostly (or perhaps entirely) breeds on Cocos Island and is very rarely seen as close to shore as we saw it. But, that’s kind of how the ferry is- you never know what you are going to encounter and even when you expect Brown Noddy and Bridled Tern, you might end up seeing a Sooty Tern instead! I’ll take that lifer and hope to get out there again in a month or two because who knows what else is out there? Maybe I will find that Peruvian Booby that was reported the day after we took the ferry!

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2 Responses to “Ferry, Lifer, and Tropical Dry Forest = A Fine Morning of Birding in Costa Rica”

  1. Hi Patrick- I really love reading the blog and I check back often for updates. I’ve birded CR once so far, and hope to get back there soon. You provide great info and a real flavor for what its like to be in the field in that great country.

  2. Mike- Glad to hear that, hope you come back to CR soon.

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