Polar vortices don’t reach as far south as Costa Rica but that doesn’t negate their effect. The icy fingers of the latest freeze up north have touched enough air masses to push some of the cold stuff down this way. It’s way too far south for any substantial amount of snow or ice but we do get cool temperatures and, most of all, sort of ridiculous amounts of rain. These aren’t the typical reliable tropical thunderstorms where one can bird all morning and take a nap accompanied by the soothing sound of falling rains in the afternoon. Nope, more like a near constant barrage of falling water that goes from light to heavy to mist in wave after trying wave.
Yeah, like how do you watch birds with conditions like that? What happened to the dry season? Patience and perseverance are key to birding success in such wet times as these, as for the dry season, in January that has always been more of a Pacific slope thing anyways. The funny thing about the dry season in Costa Rica is that it’s not really the dry season for the entire country. While the rains don’t happen on part of the Pacific slope, it has always been another story for the Caribbean and during cold fronts, the rains soak the waterways of the mountains and lowlands that flow to the Atlantic basin.
The water that falls on Arenal Volcano heads to the Caribbean and during a cold front, its slopes catch a lot of that moisture. Recently, while guiding four fellow birders from New York state, I was witness to the effects of a cold front. Despite the frightening prospect of near constant rain, we actually had more good birding news than bad. It did not end up raining the entire time and we still connected with several nice targets during birding at the Observatory Lodge and the Peninsula Road. Some hits, misses, and observations:
Take advantage of the buffet breakfast– Yes, seriously, and this worked in our favor because we could start birding at dawn, take a break at 8:20 to stock up on gallo pinto, cheese rolls, and other food, and then continue right on through lunch.
Antbirds played well– Continuing the birding on through lunch is especially important when it might rain for the rest of the afternoon, and many of the target species require an investment of birding time. We would not have seen our target antbirds if we had not stayed out there on the Hormiga and Saino Trails post breakfast. We got looks at Dull-mantled, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated at an antswarm. It started raining shortly thereafter just as we were about to see a Thicket Antpitta. Over on the Peninsula Road the following morning, we heard several Bare-crowned and had brief looks at one or two.
A Spotted Antbird from another trip to the Arenal area.
The White Hawk Villa really does have White Hawks– If you want lots of space, stay at the villa! Although we didn’t take advantage of all that extra floor space to throw a White Hawk dance party, we did have excellent looks at the signature raptor species.
Cotinga dip– No, we did not make finger foods out of shiny birds. Birders will know that we barely missed seeing a cotinga in the morning, missed again that afternoon, and then did not see it the following morning. Ouch. Serious ouch to see pictures of the male Lovely Cotinga from the day before and then the day after we left. No senor Cotinga, you were not supposed to take a day off from that fruiting fig.
Cracids, tanagers, and toucanets still come out in the rain– Or, at least in cloudy conditions. Great Curassows walked the grounds, Crested Guans posed and made weird honking noises (the local version of a goose?), chachalacas appeared, several tanagers showed including Emerald, and we couldn’t help but see another Yellow-eared Toucanet!
Female Yellow-eared Toucanet at the Casona. The fourth for the trip, you would think these were reliable!
The Black and White Owl is still there– One of these beauties frequently feeds at a light at the entrance to the Casona at the Observatory Lodge. Much to our delight, it was there during our visit as well.
A few other dips but a few other good birds too– We couldn’t escape the rain entirely and it likely resulted in us missing seeing that antpitta, and finding Song Wren, Nightingale Wren, and a few other birds. But, we did see a distant soaring Great Black Hawk, saw a roosting Great Potoo, got our Keel-billed Motmot, and at the last second of guiding, White-fronted Nunbird!
I went back there later that day with a friend and the nunbirds were still there, this time doing imitations of kingbirds.
We also had more views of the star motmot.
Unfortunately, more cold fronts in Costa Rica are expected due to a cold water Nina effect in the Pacific. Be ready for rain but if you are also ready to persevere, you can still see a lot.