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pandemic birding

Pandemic Update in Costa Rica, July, 2020

Several months into our global pandemic and there’s no end in sight. I have to remind myself that it will end at some point, that tourism will return to Costa Rica at some time, but it won’t be soon enough. Perhaps some tourists will come from Australia or a few other places where the virus is kept under control but I don’t count on it because up in here, it’s no longer under control. Unfortunately, the virus has also taken off in Costa Rica, community spread is occurring in some areas and this makes it very unlikely for the country to establish any sort of tourism bubble with anyone anytime soon.

To me, in part, it happened because too many people didn’t take the situation seriously. Despite a regular education campaign by the government to educate people about the disease, protocols to follow, and behaviors to avoid, too many folks still went to parties and other social gatherings and just didn’t follow correct protocols. It was and is illegal to have parties but there wasn’t enough effective enforcement. Even though a good number of people did follow the rules, and stores counted and controlled the number of people allowed inside, and there was and is constant information about the virus, all you need is a low percentage of the population to spread the sickness and so here we are.

Even with driving restrictions, closures, and other attempts to slow the spread, and with the spread slowed down considerably, I still knew that this was very likely going to happen because literally every time I ventured outside, I saw several people speaking closely, face to face and without masks. We always saw people touching their faces and even hugging each other. Not everyone, but more than enough. I say, though, it would certainly be far worse if a good number of people hadn’t been careful, hadn’t followed guidelines and restrictions.

I knew that community spread was certain after hearing about the police having to routinely break up several parties and clandestine bars, about the lack of adequate measures at packaging plants, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, not being able to control undocumented immigration from Nicaragua. This factor in particular was and is a significant problem for stopping the spread of the virus in Costa Rica because the response of the authoritarian government of Nicaragua to the pandemic has been one of denial followed by little else. The president and his wife (who is the vice president) actually held parades and other major social gatherings as a show of faith against the virus (I wish I was kidding!). In Nicaragua, the particular mix of proteins and genetic material known as COVID-19 has responded quite faithfully indeed.

I can’t even imagine how difficult the situation must be in Nicaragua (both in terms of health care and economics) but I have had some hints and it’s likely why more Nicaraguans have been trying to enter Costa Rica. Sadly, at least a few have come in to Costa Rica, went to the hospital, and subsequently died from COVID-19 shortly thereafter. I can’t blame them for wanting to enter Costa Rica y any means possible; people will do desperate things to survive, especially when they have children than depend on them. Regarding the spread of the virus, this latter factor has certainly come into play in certain neighborhoods in Costa Rica because people who don’t have savings can’t afford not to work.

Obviously, people with no food will do what it takes to find work or do whatever it takes to find food for their kids. In such situations, the virus becomes an afterthought and that could be one of the main factors why the virus has taken off in poor areas of San Jose. It didn’t take much for the virus to take hold in such places and with so many people living in close conditions, it was a matter of days before hundreds of people had it. As of July, Costa Rica has several thousand cases, we are hearing about one or more people dying every day, and the government has responded with a near quarantine.

Counties with a certain incidence of cases and proximity to other counties with a high number of cases now have more driving restrictions and a near total stop to the local economy. On days that a vehicle is permitted to drive, you can only do so between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. and are only allowed to go to supermarkets, pharmacies, and hospitals. You can also go to work but only with a special note. The new restrictions will be in place for a week but will certainly be extended.

Since the goal is to see if the spread can be significantly slowed down, and that won’t happen within a week, I think it’s accurate to say that much of Costa Rica is currently in a certain state of long-term quarantine. Since we can walk as far as we want and probably ride bicycles, it’s not a total quarantine (that would of course be much worse) but, to a certain degree, the closures and lack of ability for transit approximate one.

For some time, I wished the government would have shown images of people who were sick and dying, shown the catastrophic damage that can happen to lungs, try something that makes you pay attention, that forces more people to follow guidelines but even then, I don’t think it would have made a big difference. So here we are, I am grateful that we have masks and have been using them, that we can have a better chance of survival.

I am also grateful for the birds we hear everyday. Every morning and afternoon, a couple of Spot-bellied Bobwhites are out there calling.

Amazingly, I can now say that I have more than my fill of that cool little quail, a bird very similar to one that I dreamed of seeing as a kid. That northern version was a svelte little bird that still ranged just out of reach of Niagara. I loved those pictures of it in the grass, I didn’t care if it was sort of like a chicken, in the city, I never saw those things anyways.

I wondered what it would be like to hear it say its name in that sunny grass, in places where there was no doubt so many more of those other birds that I couldn’t see, that were just out of range. I used to climb these Mulberry trees that grew in a vacant lot at the end of the street. We called it “the field” and it was actually the filled in remains of a canal but it had become a field, a place where we played baseball and where some very few wild things came to live and where if I climbed high enough in one of those trees, I could just see the blue glint of the Niagara River and the green shores of Canada. Somewhere way past there were warblers and other birds, way far west were impossible Western Tanagers and Stellar’s Jays. I wanted to fly past that horizon, away from the sidewalks and concrete of those streets, some day I did.

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Birding Costa Rica pandemic birding

Birds Seen and Heard from Home in Costa Rica

These days, most of us are birding from home. Some, yes, are heading into the outdoors but many of the world’s birders either by following official quarantine orders or by doing the stay at home thing on their own, are restricted to the realm of the yard list. In Costa Rica, as with any other place, the better the habitat, the more ample the list and up in tropical here, birding from home can get downright biodiverse.

I see these fly by and even do their elaborate display from time to time.

At our present place of residence, we at Team Tyto have the chance to watch two different hedgerows bordering a small farm, a few distant taller trees, and to listen for birds calling from a riparian zone around 200 meters away. Throw big views of sky into the mix and we have plenty of birds to see and listen to right from the front door.

Looking out the front door.

During much of the past week, windy weather and sunny days have kept the bird activity to a minimum but now that the wind has died down and the days have approached the breeding season, more birds are making themselves known. These are some of what I have been seeing the past few days:

Pigeons and Doves

Familiar but many are as beautiful and exotic as a bird can get. Perhaps not the good old Rock Pigeons nor the usual urban doves but even those ones can be appreciated. In the Central Valley of Costa Rica, Red-billed Pigeons rule and perhaps because they are a choice sighting for the ABA region, I do enjoy watching them. In my neighborhood, this bird species feeds on fruits in trees and bushes and gives its “whoeeew…whip, wup wup whooo” calls from those same vantage points. I also see it in flight where it’s dark and bulky appearance separates it from the even more common White-winged Dove. The dove scene is rounded out by the soft gentle calls of Inca Doves perched on roadside cables.

Obligatory sing to listen to while watching White-winged Doves. Maybe she can compose a follow-up where a near senior is associated with Red-billed Pigeons..

Swifts

It really is worth it to follow the suggestions of David Lindo, the Urban Birder. His catchphrase is “Look up!” and he’s right. No matter where a birder may be, keep eyes to the sky and you will see things, you will see birds that surprise you because we share more space with the avian than most people realize. As with many places on Earth, around here, we share sky space with swifts. Big White-collared Swifts slice the air with long sharp wings flying in groups high overhead and then zipping lower, even just above the house, during cloudy weather. The common small species is the Vaux’s Swift, I usually see these flying with larger groups of Blue-and-white Swallows and in the morning, a few Chestnut-collared Swifts also forage in the aerial vicinity. On stormy days, the skies can also reveal much less common Spot-fronted Swifts and even a few Black Swifts. Where do they come from? How far do the larger swifts fly to during a day of foraging? Nobody knows, I would love to find out!

Raptors

Big, bold and in the skies, these are some of the birds easiest to see during yard birding. Where I live, Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture are typically up there and a pair of neighborhood Yellow-headed Caracaras can also be found. Looking skyward can also yield views of everything from Short-tailed Hawk and Gray Hawk to an occasional Zone-tailed Hawk and groups of migrating Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks.

Other Usual Birds

The common garden birds of my yard list include this list of species that are seen or heard most days in the hedgerows and other patches of green space near here. These are the species that awake me in the morning, that accompany me during exercises to begin the day:

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Hoffmann’s Woodpecker,

Lineated Woodpecker, Lesson’s Motmot, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Brown Jay, House Wren, Rufous-naped Wren,

Clay-colored Thrush, Baltimore Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, Melodious Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Blue-black Grassquit, and Grayish Saltator.

The Odd Ones

These are some of the birds that occasionally show up to feed on fruit or flowers or just fly through the airspace of the yard. More are possible especially during migration.

White-tipped Dove, Striped and Squirrel Cuckoos,

Ringed Kingfisher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue-vented Hummingbird, Crested Caracara, White-crowned and White-fronted Parrots, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Masked Tityra,

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Montezuma Oropendola, Giant and Bronzed Cowbirds, Orchard Oriole, Rufous-capped Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Buff-throated Saltator.

Birds Heard but not Seen

These are the species whose vocal capabilities bring them into my sphere of identification yet I never see them because their required habitats just don’t make it onto my street. They include the rollicking calls of Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,

occasional Common Pauraque, Mottled Owl and Rufous-and-white Wren, and very rarely, Tropical Screech-Owl.

Birding efforts will continue to be home bound in the coming days but with migration just around the corner, it’s only going to get better. I hope you are all staying healthy, keeping busy, and watching the birds in your respective yards. Eventually, we will be back out in the field, I hope to see you there.