October weather in Costa Rica is tricky. Although hurricanes don’t plow their way through the country, the long humid fingers of such weather systems can give Costa Rica a very wet and lasting caress. Last week, we were touched by the heralds of a tropical system churning its way through part of the Caribbean, and as expected, the wet winds brought more than enough rain. Unlike “typical” tropical storms that take pace in the afternoon, rain generated by unstable systems in the Caribbean and Pacific can belt Costa Rica with constant sheets of falling water at all hours. This past week, the water fell for three straight days, most of it soaking the grounds and rushing the rivers of the Pacific Slope.
Given that rain and counting birds is a no-win combination, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one anxious about dawn chorus for GBD, October 6th. The forecast was a gamble even up to the last minute and when I drove over the mountains the evening of the 5th, the situation was far from promising. Wind and rain danced a vicious jig on the high slopes of Barva Volcano and landslides seemed likely. Since a fair chance of rain was also forecast for the Pacific slope the morning of the global collective bird count, at the last moment, I opted for dawn chorus on the Caribbean side. Dawn chorus refers to the vocalizations of birds during the early morning, it can consist of a few species or many and is an absolute make it or break it situation on a Big Day. Do it right and you can add dozens of species, maybe even a hundred in an hour. Start in the wrong place or with rain and the Big Day totals will take a fatal hit.
This is a picture of the Peace Waterfall overflowing with muddy flood waters from the afternoon of October 5th.
This past Saturday, thinking that the habitat at La Selva would be just as or even more productive than another site I had chosen as a starting point, I made a last minute change to greet the dawn on the entrance road to this classic birding site. Some of the situations and highlights from a day given over to the birds:
Early morning is always a beautiful, promising part of the day, on October 6th, we were greeted by the calls of motmots, Green Ibis, and a few other birds. But…not a whole lot else. Our dawn chorus was a bit quiet and I couldn’t help but wonder if time of year had something to do with it because various birds I have seen and heard on numerous other occasions at spots we visited didn’t make themselves known on October 6th. We still heard and saw several species, though, including one of our key, best birds of the day, Snowy Cotinga!
Expected Great Green Macaws were also very nice.
Tigre Fields deliver some birds
I wasn’t sure how well this site would work since much of it has been drained and it’s nothing like it used to be. Nevertheless, wet puddles on open ground worked to give us Southern Lapwing, both yellowlegs, Blue-winged Teal and a few other species we did not see in other spots.
Dave n Daves and raptors
This stop was made to pick up a few hummingbirds (we did) and hopefully get Gray-headed Chachalaca and a few other species (we did not). However, stopping there still worked out and not only because we saw those hummingbirds. We also saw raptors as they road the first thermals up into the blue. The best of those was a striking adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle right in front of Dave and Dave’s, the second best probably a Zone-tailed Hawk deftly spotted soaring above a kettle of vultures.
The birding and bird photography at this special site are always great. Lately, both oropendolas and three toucan species have been showing up!
All is quiet at Virgen del Socorro
Good baseball playing weather is good for dawn birding but by 8:30, our avian friends take a sudden, multi-species break. And so it was for us in the Socorro area. At least the scenery was nice and we still picked up some, but we also failed to luck out with a big mixed flock. At least Blackburnian Warblers were in abundance and we did add some other birds. On a side note, I also discovered that the road in Virgen del Socorro had been “fixed” by dumping loose gravel along the length of it. This did not work out well for my small car, for the time being, it looks like visiting this site might only be possible with a four wheel drive vehicle.
Common birds on strike?
Not all of them but a higher number of common species than expected. The two that take the prize for unexplained absence would have to be House Sparrow and Red-billed Pigeon. I mean normally, I can’t go without seeing these two even when I’m not birding. Somehow, someway, I managed to not see them on October 6. But, we did see a cotinga! And that should really count for ten birds.
Waiting for a few more birds and visiting the Tigre Fields put us a bit behind schedule. Fortunately, shaving time off sunny sites at Socorro got us back on board with the original birding times. We even had time for a near unprecedented stop in Alajuela for a bathroom and coffee/Red Bull break (or the other way around)!
Higher up, a stop in the San Rafael area gave up several species, our best probably being Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher that called on one gracious occasion. Nearby hummingbird feeders gave us expected species plus a sweet female Magenta-throated Woodstar.
We also saw Red-faced Spinetail.
The Dry Pacific
Back on schedule, I figured we had time to check for dry forest species on Cerro Lodge road. This worked out with some additional species being added like Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Turquoise-browed Motmot, a couple hummingbirds, and a few other birds.
After Cerro Lodge, we headed to Tarcoles. Mangroves didn’t give up as many species as I would have liked (and don’t seem to be as productive compared to a few years ago or more) but it’s always nice to be surrounded by Prothonotary warblers. We then enthusiastically drove to the beach and quickly saw that no, we wouldn’t get as many birds there as we had hoped either! The recent rains had changed the river mouth, unfortunately NOT placing it in easy view. We still managed to add some birds but not nearly as many as we had hoped, likely because most of the sand bars at the mouth of the river were not visible.
Despite a dearth of coastal species, the Carara area still provided a good chance of augmenting out list with birds missed during the morning as well as regional endemics. Since the park was already closed (it’s only open during the non-birdiest part of the day anyways), we birded the road to the Pura Vida gardens. Although it was quieter than usual, we still did well and got several regional endemics along with a good bunch of other birds right up to five p.m. Some of those final daylight species were Costa Rican Swift, Bat Falcon, Crested Guan, and a White-whiskered Puffbird that perched over the road. I thanked each of those birds!
Carara is a good site for the muppet-like puffbird.
Night and the final tally
A gas station visit was warranted and since we could combine that with a night visit to rice fields outside of Jaco, off we went, driving 20 minutes to get there. Serendipity struck en route when a Short-tailed Nighthawk drifted over the road at sunset. After the gas station stop, the rice fields then gave us thick-knee and Boat-billed Heron but no owls. We could have found some by staying longer but we were tired and decided to end the GBD. The final tally turned up 236 species, the second highest for Costa Rica and probably one of the highest in the world. Next time, we’ll see more but this October Global Big Day was still fantastic.
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