Spring is happening in Costa Rica. Up north, the first major change in the seasonal tapestry is marked by melting snow, sunny, warmer days, bird song, and fresh, green bits shooting out of the dormant, muddy ground. Rightly named Spring Peepers awake, and flickers call from the old oaks and maples in the parks. The change is so dramatic and anticipated, for milenia, people in the temperate north have celebrated with holidays related to rebirth and renewal. There are dances, religious celebrations, general making merry, feasts that include ham and jelly beans, and perhaps best of all, serious chocolate.
Go outside and the birds are also getting crazy happy. Huge flocks of blackbirds undulate over the muddy ground and share the thaw with a soundscape that includes honking geese, the whirring wings of ducks taking to the air, and the welcome singing of American Robins. Those who live a fair degree north know that much of that winter isn’t truly over until the latter part of April or even the beginning of May but warmer, sunny days are always happier than the cold dead grip of winter.
Although waterfowl don’t seem to mind a Niagara winter.
In Costa Rica, it might not always be sunny, but it’s always warm and although that makes it seem like summer has taken up permanent residence, actually, we do experience spring, just not in the same way as the frozen realms of the north. Ten degrees north of the equator, this ancient episode of natural renaissance shows itself in different, more subtle ways. I was reminded of the quiet change this morning as I walked along a road through farms planted with coffee. Shortly after leaving the house, Piratic Flycatchers pierced the air with near constant vocalizations while the more gentle notes of Yellow-green Vireos filtered out of shade trees. Around here, both of these species are true spring birds. Like flycatchers and vireos that live in the woodlands of upstate New York, these tropical representatives also migrate south. However, instead of departing to escape cold weather, they come here only to take advantage of the insect abundance provided by the rains. Only here for breeding, these and a few other species show up in numbers by February or March and head back to Amazonian haunts by August and September.
The Piratic Flycatcher might look wimpy but it’s actually fairly psycho. This bird waits for other species to build a nest and then steals it.
Resident bird species also tune up the vocal chords at this time of year. Clay-colored Thrushes (aka National Bird) just started with the singing the other day and as anyone who lives in Costa Rica knows, a heck of a lot of singing it does! As with other years, we can expect to hear the surrounding gardens and farmlands fill with the pleasant songs of this common Turdus thrush starting pre-dawn and pumping up the volume as the morning progresses.
National Bird makes up for its somber plumage with a cheerful song.
Away from the dry, sun-drenched lands of the Central Valley, other harbingers of Spring include the elegance of Swallow-tailed Kites, the squeaking calls of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and rivers of migrating raptors. Most of the Louisiana Waterthrushes and Prothonotary Warblers have already left for the north, and a few of the wintering warblers are getting into breeding plumage. Black-throated Greens and one or two others will probably get in some practice singing in a month or so although they save most of that music for the boardwalks at Magee Marsh, Pelee, and lesser known yet just as happy local spring patches.
Spring being the height of the dry season in the Central Valley, I walked this morning past dry, brown grass and gnarled trees in flower. As the vireos sang and Brown Jays called, I was nevertheless reminded of other places from other times by way of scents that drifted out of the ravine and from the resting vegetation. Much to my surprise, the pleasant perfumed scents clicked memory banks that showed me times spent in the dry habitats of Colorado, places where crickets and Western Meadowlarks punctuated the audible scene. I recalled watching Lark Sparrows feeding in dry grasses of eastern Washington and hearing the calls of Western Wood-Pewees. As I walked on, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers chipped from the bushes and I was back on Goat Island, scanning the riverside willows for warblers while Warbling Vireos duetted with the rushing sounds of rapids. I won’t be in those places this change of seasons, but it’s still pretty nice around here.