Categories
biodiversity climate change migration

Blackburnian Warblers in Costa Rica- Will They Always be Here?

Fall passerine migration has reached Costa Rica. Unlike the woods and fields of Niagara, it doesn’t happen in waves of birds that shake the pollen from the Goldenrod. The subtle movements and gentle colors of warblers, vireos, and Least Flycatchers in early autumn foliage aren’t a part of our fall landscape but that’s alright; every place has its avian charm. In Costa Rica, our fall migration charms start with flocks of Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, group after group of Eastern Kingbird, an abundance of Red-eyed Vireos and wood-pewees. As in the north, the ancient annual movement of birds also happens in Costa Rica, it just takes on different flavors and shades of bird.

An Eastern Kingbird migrating through Costa Rica.

Other birds that paint a Central American autumn are thousands (likely millions) of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows, Purple Martins, and many Scarlet Tanagers. Although we don’t see the full array of classic, confusing fall warblers, a fair number still move into and through Costa Rica. You see, our fall migration is a combination of birds coming back to their winter homes and others heading further south, straight to the bird continent that begins with Colombia. The Blackburnian Warbler is one of those passage migrants and these days, it can be the most common warbler in town.

The other day, we had our first fall taste of Blackburnians while visiting some friends for some morning birding in higher habitats. Although our birding destination was still heavily influenced by an urban component, there were enough gardens and green space to connect us with a healthy number of birds. For folks from North America, this will surely sound odd but the best bird on our morning list was actually a Tree Swallow. A species that doesn’t need to travel this far south, we don’t get too many in Costa Rica and most sightings take place in later months. Nevertheless, we were surprised and pleased to be looking at a juvenile Tree Swallow flying around with a feeding swarm of resident Blue-and-white Swallows.

Blue-and-white Swallow

The rest of the morning gave us more typical migrant species; a Western Wood-Pewee that sallied from a garden post, a couple of Wilson’s Warblers at higher elevations, and our first Black-and-white Warbler of the fall. More groups of swallows also moved through, mostly in the form of Cliff and I do enjoy watching those but our main quarry, our most hoped for birds were wood-warblers. This being the height of Cerulean Warbler migration in Costa Rica, I have to admit that this special beauty was the number one bird on my mind. We weren’t looking in the best of places but at this time of transience, it can happen anywhere, even in the riparian zone out back.

We might not have seen a Cerulean on that day but checking each and any warbler still rewarded us with numerous looks at another favorite beauty, the Blackburnian.

We must have seen at least 8 of this popular species on that morning, maybe more, and on subsequent days, I saw some while walking near home. Unlike the male warblers of May, the birds that boast their presence with bright colors and song, these Blackburnians were in fall stealth migration mode. They didn’t chip, they didn’t respond to pishing or pygmy-owl or screech-owl calls. They were too busy feeding for any of that nonsense, too intent on bulking up to head back into the night skies and move to their Andean wintering grounds.

Given their quiet focused ways, the warblers almost went unnoticed, even as they steadily moved through the foliage, hopping here, picking something off a leaf there. Given that effective unobtrusive behavior, I wonder how many more were out there in Costa Rica? Hundreds? Probably thousands, all spread across green space, feeding to fill up and keep moving.

Blackburnian Warbler in stealth mode.

The tropical foliage where they forage and spend the winter is a far cry from their breeding grounds. It’s hard to imagine both types of forest in the same frame of thought but the connection is made with Blackburnian Warblers and other birds. They form a bridge between fantastic humid biodense forests of the Andes with fantastic mixed forests of the north. Those breeding grounds are forests of Maple, Oak, and Spruce, places where I have been serenaded to near sleep by the steady toots of Northern Saw-whet Owl, places where one awakes to the ethereal song of Wood Thrushes, places where I made my first birding steps.

Hemlock and pine and June in such places is an incredible show of birdsong. At least it should be. It still is in many places but given the massive decline in birds, I am sure it’s not as loud as it warrants. Nor are the trees as massive and tall as they should be even though much forest has grown back.

Naturally speaking, it’s extremely important to know how things should naturally be because how else can we know if an ecosystem is working as it should? How else can we know if the vegetation is growing as it should to provide people hundreds of years from now with carbon sequestration, food, and other essential benefits? How else can we know if there are enough Blackburnian and other warblers to act as natural pest killers? How else can we know if we are working with our natural surroundings and not breaking down the essential connections, wiping away a safety net that would keep us thriving for the long run?

The Blackburnians that are moving through Costa Rica didn’t have to deal with the conflagrations out west. The Olive-sided Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewees I saw today are the lucky ones, they made it here in time. The other countless number of birds that died in those flames and that may have been erased by the subsequent smoke weren’t so lucky. Terribly, many people also lost their lives, countless more people survived but lost their homes along with everything inside.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee

Having gone through the devastation of a home fire (and not even one where the house was destroyed), I can’t begin to tell you how terrible that is but if you can imagine one moment to the next being homeless and having nothing, and maybe also losing a loved one or family pet, that gives a fair idea. If there’s any way anyone can help, check out these possibilities, these people need it now.

On the bird side of things, the fires make me wonder if there will be fewer Wilson’s Warblers in Costa Rica this winter. The fires may have been partly responsible for the large number of bird deaths from New Mexico. For the Wilson’s that winter in Costa Rica, it all depends on where they are coming from but if we as a species can’t make major changes in time, eventually, it won’t much matter where that species, Blackburnians or many other birds live. Whether they survive drastic changes brought on by human-caused climate change or not will be one more sick gamble of the Anthropocene.

We can put the odds in their favor and keep seeing Blackburnian Warbler in Costa Rica, on the Texas Coast, and Magee Marsh but only if we make major changes now in our collective behavior. We CAN make changes to limit the fires and other major disasters that have the ability to eventually disrupt food production and other basic aspects of life to the point of causing suffering for huge numbers of people. Let’s make the change, the time to do it has already been now.

Categories
biodiversity migration

Wood-Pewee Connection

It’s early September and the first fall migrants are coming through Costa Rica. These are the species that passed through the lands near their northern breeding grounds during the dog days of August; the hot days of shorebird migration, the time of latent summer that tricks you into never believing in winter. In Niagara, those humid days made it hard to imagine the constant freezing winds of a lake watch, the nights ruled by nature’s lethal cold caress. While walking on the hazy beaches of Lake Erie, it was odd to imagine that, just a few months later, those same warm sandy places would be glazed with ice. But the presence of Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers wasn’t any hoax, those Arctic nesters weren’t flying way south for nothing.

In September, those and many other shorebirds have converged in Costa Rica. These are the days to watch them (!), to look for the odd one out, see if you can trick yourself into changing a funny looking distant Semipalmated Plover into a mega Common Ringed. Being far south of cold weather, smartly situated in vital wintering grounds for multitudes of Passerines, Costa Rica also bears witness to numbers of warblers, Baltimore Orioles and other migrant birds of the north. Although the bulk of those travelers won’t be in Costa Rica until October, some of the earlier migrants come through town just about now.

Among those “early” species are birds that winter in South America, birds like Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, and Mississippi Kites. A kite in the Central Valley would be a bonus and it’s not out of the question but seeing one will likely require a visit to the Caribbean lowlands. That’s also where most of the vireos and kingbirds travel but some also find their way to our “backyard”.

This morning, while enjoying coffee and looking for avian action out back, I saw that two vireos had managed to do just that. They were so stealthy, I almost didn’t see them. Unlike the constantly singing bird of the breeding grounds, the fall vireos of Costa Rica have removed themselves from center stage. More concerned with eating, the only sign of their presence is a brief flutter in leafy vegetation, an afterthought of a bird that seems to vanish as soon as you raise the binos. There were just two or were there more? Taking their stealthy behavior into account, there could have easily been several in the area, more birds ghosting their way through the riparian zones out back.

As with every migrant bird, I always wonder where they came from? How far did they fly the night before? Where did those small olive, gray, and white birds spend the summer? Was it in the beautiful mixed forests of the Upper Peninsula where I once camped and listened to Saw-whets on a cold night? Had they been singing in the rolling forests of southern Illinois where I worked for a field season doing bird surveys and looking for bird nests? Could they have even come from the remnant old growth forests of the Niagara Gorge, a special place close to the heart where, like many other Western New Yorkers, I used to hike and fish for salmon?

I wondered the same about another migrant species I had seen out back a few days before. It looked so much like an extension of a snag, I wouldn’t have noticed the bird if it hadn’t moved. Luckily, it was actually moving a lot, sallying out again and again and that bit of brown flash during a light rain is what prompted me to get my binocs. Focusing in on the tip of the stick revealed a wood-pewee and although this migrant Contopus is at the duller end of the colorful bird spectrum, it shines with hues of behavior, challenge, and story.

This particular pewee was showcasing its classic pewee behavior with urgent fervor. It no doubt had better places to be and was buying its night train ticket with captures of airborne insects. Looking at it through the scope revealed a small brown bird constantly looking back and forth and up and down. No time for song, it sallied out again and again, even going after but missing a large white butterfly (oh yes, there are many seriously cool butterflies out back!). Keeping with a pewee tradition that pleases the birder, it came back to that same snag every single time and thus allowed me to study it as much as I wanted.

Those prolonged looks helped me pass the pewee challenge. Scope studies convinced me that the non-vocalizing bird was a Western Wood-Pewee, a species that migrates through the highlands of Costa Rica in large numbers. Although it always is best to hear a pewee before giving it a name, this bird was so gray, had such an overall dark bill, and a more prominent lower wing bar, I figured it had to be a Western.

As for the story of that pewee, I suppose the only thing I honestly know is that it spent a late afternoon in a riparian zone in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. I don’t even know if it found enough food to head back into the night skies and keep flying south but I didn’t see it the following day. As with those vireos and any of the migrant birds from the north, I can’t know where it came from but having heard them on many a bird survey in Colorado and Washington, I have a fair idea of places where it could have spent the summer. Places with Aspens and conifers in unbelievably spectacular scenery, places where I heard many a Flammulated Owl, admired those small owls with a flashlight. Places blanketed with forests of tall Doug Firs, ferns and Devil’s Club in the understory, Varied Thrushes singing from above, Pacific Wrens calling from below. Drier and sunnier habitats too with scattered oaks, junipers and brush frequented by Virginia’s Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees.

That small bird might seem insignificant but it hails from fantastic, beautiful places far to the north, flies through the night over vast areas of Mexico and on to Central America and the story doesn’t even stop there! It keeps going, flying further still to the lush cloud forests of South America, all the way to places with astounding bastions of biodiversity, all the way to the Andes where it shares an avian scene with chat-tyrants, ridiculously plumaged hummingbirds, and a fantastic array of tanagers.

I have also been fortunate to have visited those places where it winters. For now, I’m happy to greet it on its way south but one day, I still hope to fly into the night and meet it again on its wintering grounds.

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding News, Costa Rica, September, 2020

It’s September. All of a sudden, here we are starting one of most beautiful months to visit Niagara Falls, the month when the weather is perfect, the salmon are running, and millions of birds are on the move. It seems like we got here so quickly, it also seems like it took forever. So goes the passage of time during the limbo dance of the 20202 pandemic. As always, time doesn’t stop even if our perceptions of it are affected and changed by our circumstances.

Each month has its advantages but for the birding people, September is one of those extra special times. In Costa Rica, it’s a major month of shorebirds and we mark it with annual counts and scoping through congregations of waders at such key sites as Chomes, Punta Morales, and Las Pangas. The first of the migrant passerines are also arriving (including Cerulean Warblers!) but the majority postpone the trip until October. Few if any birders will be visiting Costa Rica this September but you never know, the country is starting to reopen. I hope the following information can be of help:

Storm-Petrels from Puntarenas

Yesterday, September 1st, Marilen and I kicked off the month with a visit to the Pacific Coast. Seeing two Humpback Whales from an overlook just outside of Jaco was fantastic but even more newsworthy was the presence of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels seen from shore at Puntarenas. A small but vital port city, Puntarenas is situated on a spit of land that pokes into the Gulf of Nicoya right where the inner and outer parts of the gulf meet. As a birder might expect, that position and convergence of aquatic systems can attract some interesting things. It’s the type of place that always merits a scan at any time of day and perhaps most of all during the rainy season when an abundance of nutrients are washed into the gulf.

There are storm-petrels out there...

Yesterday’s visit paid off with immediate, close views of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. At first, I figured the small birds flying around the water would be Black Terns but no, every single one was a storm-petrel! The presence of this species in the Gulf of Nicoya is regular but I have rarely seen them from shore and never in such numbers. Typically, with a few ferry rides and maybe 10 visits to Puntarenas over the course of a year, I see one to three Wedge-rumpeds. Yesterday, I counted 28 and I suspect more were present further out. It makes me wonder what else was out there (we did notice some large, tantalizing groups of birds too far away to identify)? Why were so many present? As with some of my other sightings of Black and Least storm-petrels from the point at Puntarenas, many of the birds were foraging where the waters of the inner gulf may converge with those of the outer. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of having some form of bird monitoring and studies for the Gulf of Nicoya to better assess numbers and species that visit the waters of the gulf at which time of year.

Shorebirds

This is high time for shorebird migration in Costa Rica and it’s only going to improve over the next two or three weeks. The most exciting sighting was that of a Ruff (!) seen during the final days of August by Daniel Hernandez in the Las Pangas wetlands near Ciudad Neily. It’s fantastic to have this vagrant once again show in Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual and hope it will stay for the winter.

At Las Pangas, Baird’s Sandpiper has also been seen, more of this species should be present at suitable sites during the next two months. We will be checking a Central Valley site where we had it last year.

Shorebird hotspot Punta Morales has also been good, yesterday, we had large numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willet, and Wilson’s Plovers among 11 other species including Surfbird, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a single Long-billed Curlew.

Cocos Island

Currently, Serge Arias of Costa Rica Birding and some other local birders are on a trip to Cocos Island. I can’t wait to see what they come back with! Will checking the photos turn up some new record for Costa Rica? That always is a possibility.

Nemesis seen

As with any nemesis, it took some time, but I eventually did catch up with the nefarious Masked Duck. We had close views, we saw both sexes, birds vocalized, we saw them doing their skulking thing, and the experience was shared in good company. I am grateful and couldn’t have asked for more! Hopefully, Mary and I will get the chance to visit that area soon and see those birds again.

Updates to Rules for Visiting Costa Rica

The same rules for visiting during the pandemic are still in place but now, folks from certain states in the USA can also visit and more are scheduled to be allowed entrance after September 15th. For more information, see the Costa Rica Tourism Board. One main issue for visiting is getting a pcr COVID-19 test done within 72 hours before travel. Hopefully, this issue will improve, at the moment, I have heard of at least one place in NYC that may do that. Maybe various other places for quick test results are also available?

‘NOTE that if you do get a COVID-19 test, it absolutely has to be a pcr test and not the serological test that checks for antibodies. Recently, two Spanish citizens were denied entrance to Costa Rica because they arrived with results the serological test.

There’s probably more to say about birding in Costa Rica in September but that’s all I can think of for now. Wishing readers the best of birding days, hope to see you sometime soon!