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
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.

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
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica migration

Some October Birding News for Costa Rica, 2019

I have always loved the month of October. In Niagara, deep red and gold foliage in the gorge meant that big changes were coming and real soon. Most of the warblers had passed through except for the late ones; the Yellow-Rumps and some Palms joined by sparrows chased out of the boreal zone by the temp-dropping touch of winter’s early winds. Down in the deep green Niagara River, it was still too early for most waterbirds, the rafts of hundreds of ducks and blizzards of gulls, but we still knew that the end of fall was nigh and not only by the crisp clear nights. The King Salmon in the river were another sign; non-native, introduced, yet a modern part of Niagara, the big fish from October had turned a dark golden brown. They had lost most of their speed and fresh breeding colors, were literally slowly but surely dying as they leaped from the water. Like aquatic zombies, the old wasted salmon ambled through the shallows oblivious to all lures. Part of their natural life-span, they were destined to become food for the gulls.

A Ring-billed Gull looking forward to salmon (or French Fries..)

October in Costa Rica has none of that seasonal game-changing atmosphere, no pumpkins on the porches. It’s rainy but still warm. If anything, the biggest changes come in the form of migrant birds. The wood-warblers and flycatchers began to show up in September but the main waves of birds pass through in October. Some news for this 10th, spooky cool month of the year:

High Season for Migration

Early October is when we might see a Veery. Sometimes several of the rich russet-backed thrush can be seen at fruiting trees where they are flighty and forage with a few Gray-cheekeds and Swainson’s (the bulk of which come through in mid-October). During migration, Swainson’s Thrushes are a dime a dozen in Costa Rica but the other two migrant thrushes require a bit more effort. I hope to hear some in that tropical night sky soon.

A Gray-cheeked Thrush migrating through Costa Rica from a couple years ago.

Down on the coast, flocks of Eastern Kingbirds are powering through while the skies above them feature flocks of Mississippi Kites and the first groups of Broad-wingeds. On the warbler front, Blackburnians are coming through in numbers and all other regular warbler species are here or arriving with each new day. Recently, in Parque del Este, Marylen and I had some good mid-day birding on a rare, beautiful October day. No cuckoos nor Ceruleans but we did connect with a group of 20 or warblers, most of which were Blackburnians, but there was also a Canada or two, one Brewster’s, and a Worm-eating along with Kentucky, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Black-and-white, and a couple of American Redstarts. We also saw Olive-sided Flycatcher, both pewees (yes, they did vocalize), Red-eyed Vireos, and a few other migrants. Uncommon migrant species that other birders have recently seen in Costa Rica include Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-breasted Chat and Gray Kingbird.

Costa Rica’s first MOTUS station

In keeping with the main month of migration, a key means of tracking small migrant birds was recently installed at the Brisas Reserve in the Caribbean foothills of Costa Rica. Motus stations are used to detect small radio transmitters placed on birds; devices that are the best way to show exactly where birds are coming from, where they are going, and where they are stopping to refuel. This first such station in Costa Rica will help reveal more information about threatened Cerulean Warblers and other species that migrate through and winter in the country. This big key jump in research of bird migration in Costa Rica was made possible by the efforts of SELVA and the Cerulean Warbler Project as part of the Neotropical Flyways Project.

A Good Time to Bird the Caribbean Lowlands

Migration is at its best near the Caribbean coast but even if a birder wasn’t into seeing some of the same avian kind as in West Virginia, Florida, or Pennsylvania, he or she would still do well do bird places like Tortuguero, Cahuita, and other sites south of Limon. The resident birding is likewise excellent with most lowland species possible and the weather is more likely to cooperate in October than during the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Visit Costa Rica for birding in October, you won’t be disappointed!

You might see a White-vented Euphonia.

The First South Caribbean Bird Count!

I so wish I was participating in this. It’s something I have always wanted to do or at least see happen. Although other responsibilities were just too much to help out with the count this year, at least it is taking place and it looks to be a good one. Well organized and with several routes, I just know they are going to find some tough species and maybe some rare migrants on October 5th.

Striated Heron near Jaco!

A remnant wetland right at the fringes of Jaco is turning up some good stuff including Least Bittern and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. However, the local star of the birding show has been a vagrant Striated Heron. We didn’t head down there because we already got our year bird at Medio Queso. Many thanks go to local guide Beto Guido for keeping track of the bird and giving daily updates to help many a local birder connect with this mega for Costa Rica.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers at the airport!

Richard Garrigues (the main author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica) and his talented birding sons have been visiting the country’s main airport to look for grasspipers. Those efforts worked because they found two Buff-breasted Sandpipers! One of the trickiest of the regular migrants to pass through Costa Rica, I suspect that hundreds just fly right on over and if some birds do stop, they end up in non-birded pasturelands. However, once in a while, some Buffies end up in the extensive areas of short grass at the airport. This year, two did just that around a week ago and Mary and I were some of the lucky birders that managed to see them. Many thanks to Richard and the Garrigues family for finding these excellent migrants.

Removal of Hummingbird Feeders

On a strange note, due to a strict interpretation of the local wildlife law, Costa Rican authorities responsible for enforcement of regulations that affect the environment have began to make some restaurants and other places take down their hummingbird feeders. This, because the law prohibits feeding wild animals. Since there is scant evidence that hummingbird feeders definitely affect hummingbirds and ecological communities in a negative manner, and because said feeders help promote local tourism (and thus an important segment of the economy), a quickly growing group of local guides, tour operators, hotel owners, biologists, and other folks have been organizing to seek a solution (stay tuned for more about this issue).

If you do go birding in Costa Rica this October, please mention your favorite bird in the comments and don’t forget to prepare for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Hope to see you in Costa Rica!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica migration

Fall Migration is On in Costa Rica

Autumn, it’s happening up north where the changes in Niagara bring salmon jumping in the river, leaves just beginning to turn gold and red, and wood-warblers chipping in the oaks. September birding for me in the north was flocks of infamous fall warblers calling and flitting in the trees of Goat Island. The migration back then could be intense, on one fall out morning I recall birds in every bush and tree. Vireos come with the wood-warblers and other migrants that fly far to the south, one bunch of species to the Caribbean, another bunch to Middle America and on into the Amazon.

In Costa Rica, we get that latter bunch of birds. This is why species like the deep beauty Black-throated Blue and the tail flicking Prairie Warbler are local megas. I would love to find one or two of those or a Palm Warbler would also be nice but us birders in Costa Rica can’t complain. How so with so much to see? Birds are everywhere but it’s a bonus to watch Golden-winged Warblers and even catch Ceruleans in migration. Both are regular in Costa Rica, the seriously uncommon Golden-winged even more so than the Cerulean.

Just as around Niagara, there are a lot of migrant Tennessee Warblers.

Ceruleans come through first and some are in country as I write. I hope we can see at least one before they fly further south, to do so will require birding time in the middle elevations and foothills on the other side of the mountains. I hope we get a chance to do that. With extreme luck we could even get one in front of the homestead, after all, some also pass through the Central Valley. So far, we have had other birds, the very first migrants showing in the hedge out front.

A female American Redstart has been foraging and chipping from a fig, it was nice to become reacquainted with the call and note that it is drier than the sweet chip of a Yellow. Speaking of that very common bird, we also had our first Yellow Warbler last week. A couple of quiet Red-eyed Vireos have been sharing the hedgerow with the redstart and other migrants have come in the form of a name saying Eastern Wood-Pewee and a chipping Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (our most common Empid.).

Many more wood-pewees will be moving through the Caribbean lowlands.

Even if the hedgerow birds hadn’t been present, we would still know it’s fall by the Cliff Swallows up above. The first groups have been foraging up there with the resident Blue-and-white Swallows and swifts , there are many more in the lowlands. Soon, there could well be hundreds of swallows passing overhead as the bulk of their population moves south.

A great many Barn Swallows will also be passing through.

I hope we can venture further afield to find more birds of the fall but there’s still plenty to see right out front. The more we watch, the more likely we will find a rare Black-billed Cuckoo or other choice year bird and the more we check the coast, the more shorebirds we will see (lots of those are passing through in full force right now!). At this time of the year, the birds are out there, maybe even next door (!), you just gotta keep watching no matter where you may find yourself.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica migration

It’s Migration Time in Costa Rica!

Migration! For the birder, few other words work better at sparking a sense of excitement than that one. Ross’s Gull should, along with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, and a text that says, “Golden-winged Warbler seen this morning in Wales” but those are either target species or one-time mega jackpot birds. Migration, on the other hand, is the expected change of the seasons that brings equally expected waves of birds. Further excitement is brought to the equation by not exactly knowing where the birds will settle down but also realizing that flocks of wood-warblers just might be foraging in a nearby park. Best of all, you know that a few choice lost species are out there, somewhere in a 100 mile radius. You have to put in the hours to increase the odds along with getting super lucky to connect with them, and chances are you won’t. But, while looking, you will see lots of other species that only pass through your neighborhood during the short, birdy time frame of migration.

Thousands of Swainson’s Thrushes move through Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the birds that Buffalonians saw in September and August have just arrived in numbers. Many will stay, many will keep on going south to the subtropical forests of the Andes or wintering sites further south. When they pass through here, as elsewhere, thrushes, warblers, vireos, and tanagers gather at fruiting trees and feast on whatever bugs and larvae they can find. Given the heavy life-inducing rains experienced in Costa Rica in 2017, I bet that the migrants are well fed as they pass through my surroundings. It looked that way the past couple of days while I checked green space near the house. One fig laden with fruits has been acting as a constant smorgasbord for everything from Tennessee Warblers to Swainson’s Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers sharing tree space with many Clay-colored Thrushes, Great Kiskadees, and Blue-gray Tanagers among other birds. Up above, a few species of swallows zoomed around to catch bugs associated with the fruit and were joined by occasional swifts (Vaux’s and Chestnut-collared so far). No cuckoos yet but they are out there, others have seen a few.

At night, I also listen to the sky, hoping to hear a Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Upland Sandpiper, and cuckoos (because I count heard birds on my year list). So far, it’s only been the Spring Peeper notes of many a Swainson’s but I will keep my ear to the sky. I doubt the cuckoos will call (I kind of doubt they call much during migration) but that doesn’t keep me from having their rattling, bubbling vocalizations in mind.

During the day, although my search for migrants has mostly been limited to the Central Valley, that will change soon during a weekend of guiding near the Caribbean coast. Down that way, while reveling in frequent views of common migrants like Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Kingbird, pewees, and so on, I hope I can also connect with Bay-breasted Warbler, and less common migrants still needed for the year. There’s always a chance of finally espying a very rare for Costa Rica tail-wagging Palm Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue-Warbler, or some other lost bird, and I will be hoping to add Semiplumbeous Hawk and some other choice species to my year list. After the sojourn to the Caribbean, hopefully, during the following week, I can take a trip to the ocean on the other side of the country to see what’s happening with the shorebirds, terns, and other species that use the Gulf of Nicoya. If all goes as planned, these migration times will bring me very close to or put me over my year goal of 700 species. In the mean time, even if I don’t find a lost bird or two, it’s all good in the birding hood because I will still be seeing a heck of a lot- that’s just what happens when you are birding in Costa Rica.

Waders are a pleasant break from forest birding.

If you happen to be visiting Costa Rica during these migration times, please take the time to count the Tennessees and other not so exciting species (because you see them up north). It’s all valuable data and the more we know, the better we can give migrants what they need during their crazy biannual journeys.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica migration Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes- What to Expect in 2015-2016

Chomes. I birded Costa Rica’s top shorebird site last week. I wish I could bird there every day because, as with any important hub for migration, birds come and go, probably on a daily basis. What flies in the day after you visit? Heck, what flies in later the same day? I wish we knew! This is the place that probably sees visits by a lone, lost Red-necked Stint, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and other vagrants. But, there’s no one there to see them. Heck, if a Red-necked Stint showed up in winter plumage, who would notice it anyways?

Shorebirds await at Chomes.

Chomes is always exciting because every visit is different. You never know what’s really going to show up but if you visit during high tide during shorebird migration, you can bet that you will see a bunch of those Arctic messengers. Various terns and a gull or two are usually mixed in with the shorebirds, and there are other birds. Here are some thoughts on what to expect during the upcoming birding season:

  • A good access road: The road into Chomes leaves from the Pan-American highway. It’s not signed very well (no surprise there), and used to promise a bumpy ride. Yes, “used to” because the road has been drastically improved! Much of the road was graded this past Saturday, and the workers seemed ready to finish the job. At the moment, it is definitely good enough for two-wheel drive cars, including the tracks into the shrimp ponds. Heavy rains could change all that but they aren’t likely.
  • Too dry on the way in: Speaking of rains, we wish that more water would fall in Guanacaste and Chomes. The current El Nino effect is keeping things dry and since that’s actually global warming, it’s only going to become drier. Although we didn’t survey birds on the drive in, I can’t help but get the impression that there are fewer birds around. No surprise there since the life-giving rains have not lived up to ecological expectations. The riparian zones might be the best places to check for dry forest species along with sites in the foothills.
  • Huge agricultural areas: Immense fields have been a part of the Chomes picture for years and they probably explain why the road has been fixed. I don’t know what they will be used for but if it happens to be pineapple, just drive on past. Pineapple fields are basically filled with poison and thus have almost no birds (or other life for that matter). If something else is planted, scan for thick-knees, Harris’s Hawk, and other open country species (Aplomado Falcon has been seen there in the past).
  • Shorebirds during high tide: Some plovers and sandpipers are there during low tide but the numbers don’t compare to high tide. Check the tides and schedule accordingly because a lot of birds come here to roost and feed when the nearby Gulf of Nicoya is filled with water. On Saturday, we had hundreds of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and lesser numbers of other species including a rare Long-billed Curlew. This is the eBird list.

    Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers

    Chomes is a good site for Wilson's Plover.
  • Collared Plovers on the beach: You can also pick out a few on the ponds but this past visit had a dozen or so on the beach. Nice close looks!

    Collared Plover

    More Collared Plovers
  • Mangrove Rail: This secretive species has always been present in the scrubby Black Mangroves but it’s of course always hidden. Go early in the morning and look in spots where the scrubby mangroves are in shallow water and wet ground. When the edges of the mangroves dry out, the rails seem much harder to find because they are probably hanging out in the middle of the mangroves. These are the short mangroves that grow in the ponds.

    There is a Mangrove Rail in this picture.

    Mangrove Rail habitat

    White Ibis hanging out in Mangrove Rail habitat.
  • Mangrove birds: I was surprised that we saw so few mangrove species this past visit. Most of my past birding at Chomes has resulted in easy looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and various other species including chances at Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Try the taller mangroves on the road to the beach and on the track next to it for all of these.

    We did get nice looks at Panama Flycatcher though.
  • Bobwhite and hordes of roosting White-fronted Parrots in the evening: You can also get Spot-bellied Bobwhite during the day but it seems easier in the evening. A covey or two can show up anywhere on the road to the beach. The parrots fly in by the hundreds.
  • Hot weather, bugs, and no services: I almost forgot to mention these fun factors! That vehicle you are in is your terrestrial lifeboat, especially if it has air conditioning. Be prepared, use the restroom before birding at Chomes, and scope from the shade!

Hope to see you at Chomes!

Categories
migration

Birds Arriving, Birds Leaving Costa Rica in August

The calendar says “August’ but in Costa Rica, the weather mimics so many other times of the year. I look out the window and see the thick blanket of clouds hugging the tops of the mountains. It might rain, it might not, but it’s warm outside and that’s always a given. Unlike the northern temperate zone, this month isn’t the last 30 days of summer. There won’t be any crisp autumn nights ahead either. Much to my daughter’s chagrin, she won’t witness the change of seasons. She might feel differently if she knew that winter is not a Disneyesque frozen wonderland. While the natural magic of soft falling snow and faint crystal frequencies of forming ice could remind one of “Elsa”, the enchantment lasts only as long as your personal comfort. Wade through snow drifts, feel the pain of freezing toes, and come face to face with screaming wind chill, and the wish to grow wings and fly south become tangible. After all, a lot of birds do it once a year, so why not us?

These two escape a very cold winter.

A lot of those migrants fly to and through Costa Rica and some have already arrived. Although several shorebirds appear to have stayed here instead of going north, more have definitely flown down from their northern breeding grounds. A few local birders have made trips to Chomes and seen fair numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and even a Long-billed Curlew. Several have also had encounters with Clapper (Mangrove) Rail, a resident, furtive species that appears to be regular in short Black Mangroves at Chomes and nearby sites in the Gulf of Nicoya.

A Long-billed Curlew from last year.

Other shorebirds are surely around and arriving as well, so, hopefully, more birders can get out there and see what’s happening (I hope I can!).

As far as Passerines go, it’s still too early for the majority of warblers but a few have made appearances, including this year’s first report of Cerulean Warbler. Go to the right places in late August and early September and you have a very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler in Costa Rica. Those places are usually foothill and middle elevation forests on the Caribbean Slope, especially at the Reserva las Brisas. The first Cliff Swallows have also appeared, and many other species will be here in a month.

Birds are also leaving Costa Rica. Go birding here during March and the songs of Piratic Flycatchers are a constant theme. Go birding now and you would be lucky to see one. They have stopped singing and some are probably still around, but most have departed for Amazonia. Two other “summer” breeders will also be gone soon as well. Both the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and the Yellow-green Vireo are pretty common species on the Pacific slope from February to about now. I heard both just the other day so know that they are still around but most will be leaving any one of these nights.

Yellow-green Vireo.

Two of the most spectacular species about to leave town are the Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites. Migrating groups have been reported and they are headed to the Amazon basin. the birding is great in Costa Rica, but I wish I could fly with them, at least for a little bit. It would be interesting to see if they go to one area for the winter or if they roam over the vast rainforests. It would also be nice to take in a few Amazonian dawn choruses, but only for a little while because I wouldn’t want to miss the rest of fall migration in Costa Rica.

Plumbeous Kite.

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope migration

The Peregrine Falcon known as Island Girl is in Limon, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a fantastic place to watch Peregrines during migration. No doubt a lot of birders would respond with a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by a “So what? I see them on skyscrapers at home and if I go to Costa Rica, I’m going to be looking for Scarlet Macaws and Resplendent Quetzals, not for Peregrines.” If you feel that way, that’s alright, I understand but it wasn’t that long ago when seeing a Peregrine in North America was a pretty big deal. When I started birding back in the 70s and 80s, our only hope of seeing one of these master falcons was getting lucky with one that happened to migrate by a hawkwatch. That’s actually how I saw my first one and I can still picture the hooded, grayish adult as it flew towards us on a sunny day April day while hawkwatching at Braddock Bay, New York.

Since then, Peregrines seem to have bounced back all over the place thanks to the ban on DDT and lots of dedicated reintroduction programs. Apparently, a lot of the birds that migrate from the arctic cliffs and artificial canyons in the temperate zone wing past Costa Rica. If you spend any time on the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica during October, you can’t miss the Peregrines as they fly past one after another. In fact, the hawkwatch at Kekoldi set the seasonal record for Peregrine numbers when 3,219 birds were counted in 2004! Although that record might get broken this year by counters in Florida, maybe the Kekoldi counters will match it by the end of the season.

Some Peregrines pass the winter along both coasts in Costa Rica but most just keep going until they reach estuarine habitats and coastal areas in South America. Several Peregrines even fly all the way to Chile and the Falcon Research Group has put tracking devices on several females to study their migration routes as part of their Southern Cross Project. One of those birds was  tracked to Limon, Costa Rica last year and was actually tracked again to Limon and photographed by Marco Saborio yesterday as she perched on a cell tower. He knew where to find Island Girl because the people at the Falcon research group gave him the GPS coordinates for her!

Since I am headed down to Manzanillo for the nest few days, who knows, maybe she will be one of the many Peregrines that we will see flying along the beach?

Thanks goes out to Gerardo Obando of the AOCR for giving me a heads up about Island Girl being tracked to Limon.