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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?

Categories
Introduction

Gray-rumped Swift – Another Endemic for Central America?

Bird migration is happening, it’s probably good that I don’t live on the Caribbean coast. Not only would it be a challenge for my northern, cold-bred self to become accustomed to constant high levels of humidity, but with so many birds migrating through, it would be even more of a challenge to get anything accomplished. How not to run outside and see a river of raptors? How not to stop looking at the thrushes, warblers, and mesmerizing flocks of Eastern Kingbirds. Which flock might host a rare Gray Kingbird? An even rarer Couch’s or Cassin’s? And the thousands of Hirundines? Forget about it!

Somewhere up there with the massive Purple Martin movements is a Sinaloa Martin. The stream of swallows might host a few lost and adventurous Violet-greens, maybe even an insanely vagrant Asian swift. Unlikely, but not entirely out of the question because with so many thousands of birds being funneled through Costa Rica, lost Asian birds following their instincts south would probably also pass this way.

Identifying some mid blowing mega like that would require an extreme degree of luck but with constant monitoring of migrating Hirundines, there would be a slim chance. Although we lack such focused counting of migrating swallows and swifts at the moment, at least there are a fair number of birders in the field. Always out there, always watching, and unlike pre-digital days, most have cameras!

It turns out that Cave Swallows are an uncommon but regular migrant in Costa Rica.

I hope we will eventually have more extensive counting of migrating birds in Costa Rica but in the meantime, there are plenty of other birds to focus on. Today, we take a closer look at the Gray-rumped Swift (Chaetura cinereiventris).

No, doesn’t look like much but at least this image is honest with how swifts are often seen. This is a Gray-rumped Swift from Costa Rica.

The common Chaetura (small, stubby tailed swifts) of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills, the Gray-rumped Swift is easily seen at any number of sites. These are the small groups of swifts that fly over the canopy at the La Selva biological station, the small dark swifts with pale rumps that zip overhead, are then marked down, and then subsequently ignored.

I can’t blame fellow birders for paying less attention to swifts; I am likewise guilty of taking the bins down from looking at many of these birds. When the swifts are way up there (which they often are) and in poor light (ditto), and are not vocalizing (not nearly enough), you would be fooling yourself if you didn’t call many of them Cypseloides sp. or even Chaetura sp. (because Vaux’s can range into the lowlands and look way more like Chimneys than we might admit).

The good thing about Gray-rumpeds is that they fly low enough to see that they are darkish, nearly blackish swifts with delineated or well-marked pale rumps. I might be fooling myself (and with swifts that’s almost a given) but I also have this impression that their wings are shorter than Vaux’s. Yeah, probably fooling myself but they definitely have shorter wings than the Chimney Swifts that share their sky space.

The other cool thing about Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America is that they very likely represent a separate, distinct species. Yes, one more endemic for the land bridge between North and South America! Maybe not but molecular studies published in 2018 revealed a whopping 6.2% difference between the subspecies that occurs in Central America and at least three subspecies of Gray-rumped Swifts found in South America. See this link for figures of phylogenetic trees.

Although they look rather similar, such high molecular differences are seriously telling and regarding phenotypical differences, Chaeturas don’t exactly stand out from each other anyways. As for vocalizations, although similar, to my ears, there appear to be differences in structure and maybe pitch from South American birds.

I am guessing that more data are needed to make an adequate proposal to separate the phaeopygos subspecies of Gray-rumped Swift, especially because birds in South America might also represent additional species (?) but given that large difference in mDNA, it sure looks like Gray-rumped Swifts in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and western Panama represent a cryptic species. Even if they were still retained as a subspecies, this bird would still act as one more example of Central America acting as an evolutionary hotspot. Watch those swifts!

On October 13th, Josh Beck mentioned that the occidentalis subspecies of western Colombia and western Ecuador was not included in the phylogeny. Since occidentalis includes two disjunct populations, phylogenies including both of these would be needed to further elucidate any conclusions about the Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica migration

Morning Orioles in Costa Rica

I love seeing posts from the Morning Flight Working Group Facebook page, the virtual space where birders, field ornithologists, post reports and images of diurnal bird migration. Although most small birds migrate at night, many keep on moving in the early morning either to get in a few more miles or to find appropriate habitats. Reports that document such avian movements offer exciting glimpses into bird migration from a number of places including Cape May, New Jersey, southern Arizona, and the shores of England. They help me learn, check out cool pictures of birds in flight, and live vicariously; some mornings are simply incredible.

Hundreds of American Redstarts, hundreds, even thousands of other warblers mixed in with dozens of individuals of other species. All flying south, striving to make it to the right place for winter. Make a mind picture of the boreal forests where a Bay-breasted Warbler spent the summer and the Amazonian rainforests where it will spend the winter and expect to be mind-blown. Yes, that far. Yes, places that are radically different and they make the odyssey twice per year (!).

Scarlet Tanagers make that same trip.

It’s kind of nuts but that perception is only because we can’t fly (at least with our own wings) and we can’t migrate so incredibly far in such a short amount of time (at least by using our own body fat as fuel). For a migratory bird, it’s how things have always been, how they must be.

In Costa Rica, morning flights also occur. The Caribbean coast is the best place to see some several hundred flocks of kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and other species on the sky train to South America but we also get birds moving through the Central Valley, and that means my “backyard”.

Not many, but enough to always make it interesting. I catch the morning flight action from the back balcony and accompany it with a cup of fresh locally grown coffee (since this is Costa Rica, you can bet that it’s some damn fine coffee).

Looking out back, I usually hear a pair of Barred Antshrikes, three to four species of wrens and other locals but I’m really keeping an eye out for the tell-tale movement of the passage migrants. The quick pale flash of a Red-eyed Vireo dropping from one branch to the next. The movements of birds in flight as they alight in the top of a bamboo clump or in the grove of trees way on the other side of the ravine.

Those are where the Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers perch, where Boat-billed Flycatchers give their complaining calls, and where warblers can suddenly appear, where I hope to espy a sneaky cuckoo any day now. I scope those trees, looking for shapes that don’t belong, pieces of sticks and leaves that become birds otherwise hiding in plain sight.

A cuckoo from another day.

This morning, as with the past few, Baltimore Orioles have been taking part in the morning flight. Not very many but even one male Baltimore glowing in the morning sun is a sight for center stage. They can also hide in the profuse vegetation, the other day, with nary a sound, 8 suddenly burst out of the tree next door in a retinal ambush of orange, black, and yellow. I saw my first by chance when I was 8. It was in a patch of second growth next to a hardware store on a busy road. Since then, I have seen hundreds, even thousands of Baltimore Orioles in many places but every sighting is impressive, every one is a gift.

This morning, three gorgeous males flew through my field of view and a young male sang from a tree just out back. He sang over and over, I couldn’t help but feel that he was rejoicing to be alive, to have flown all the way from woodlots in Missouri or forests of Pennsylvania, or even some old second growth from a farm in southern Ontario.

Happy to be alive because he had to pass over false rivers and lakes of lights that tempted and beckoned from acres of deadly windows. He had to fly under the constant threat of Cooper’s Hawks and other predators, find enough food and manage to make it all the way here. Will he spend the winter? Is he singing so much because he’s a young bird with attitudes dangerously boosted by naivete? Whatever the reasons, I hope he learns to keep staying alive, I hope he figures out how survive, fly north and come back the following year. I hope that we do what it takes to ensure a world with orioles, Bay-breasted Warblers, and happy, healthy people for years to come.