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
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
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 common birds migration

Migrants are on their way back to Costa Rica

While I was standing at a bus stop last week and wishing that I could spontaneously fabricate wormholes suitable for quick and easy transport up into the much more birdy mountains, the “seet” call of a migrant warbler caught my attention

Like a secret whisper in the darkness, it was saying, “Here I am. Once again, I made it back down to the land of permanent summer without getting eaten by Sharpies, Merlins, or psycho members of the Ardeidae family. I avoided the hypnotic light traps of tall buildings and towers, and found enough food and shelter along the way to survive the elements. I made it but the journey isn’t finished yet. Now, I need to find more cover than this single Mimosa tree. It’s flowers attract a bunch of arthropodic delights and I am small enough to stay hidden in its leafy branches but even a lightweight like myself can’t survive with just one tree. Oh, and there’s also that human standing across the street. He’s making me nervous because he is staring my way with fixed eyes like a predator. I better go flit and keep myself out of sight!”

Yes, I was staring the way of the warbler. How could I not? Since I am an adamant and faithful birder as opposed to being a bus-watcher or addicted to text messaging, that warbler was the most exciting thing around! I suspect it was a Yellow because they migrate early, are common winter residents in the Central Valley, and make a “seet” call like the one I heard. Without binoculars to magically turn it into an identifiable creature, though, I can’t say for sure that it was a small, yellow, sweet-sweet singing insectivore of boreal, damp shrubbery.

Such is the serendipity of migration. You can wait at a bus stop and suddenly spot a Blackpoll Warbler, cuckoo species, or even a big-eyed nighthawk in a nearby tree. Looking up, away from the Earth, you might espy a steady stream of swallows winging their way south. Costa Rica and Panama are so small that they could reach Colombia by nightfall. Will they fly past that wonderful haunt of Colombian endemics known as Santa Marta Mountain? They are headed to the sea of forest known as the Amazon as are Eastern Kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Alder Flycatchers. I wish I could go with them but I don’t mind staying in Costa Rica. I started migrating here myself in 1992 but I eventually traded the long trips for permanent residency after becoming addicted to tropical forests.

birding Costa Rica

A glimpse into my addiction.

The fact that a lot of northern birds make Costa Rica their winter home eases my longing to walk beneath the forever canopy of Amazonian forests. Yellow Warblers (like the one I probably heard at the bus stop) love to spend the winter in Costa Rica. Spish in any lowland to middle elevation second growth and they will come calling.

birding Costa Rica

Yellow Warblers are super common winter residents in Costa Rica.

Do the same in mangroves and Prothonotary Warblers hop up onto exposed roots to brighten the swampy gloom (a lot like their breeding grounds).

birding Costa Rica

Prothonotary Warblers are so darn aquatic.

Chestnut-sided Warblers, though, are the bane of Costa Rica birders during the winter. These eye-ringed, wing-barred Dendroicas love to show up just when you think you have spotted something potentially exciting because they hang with mixed flocks, are found away from mixed flocks, can be seen in the shadows of the forest, and flit around second growth. In other words, they pop into view just about everywhere you go in Costa Rica so get ready to see a lot of them if you plan on birding Costa Rica during the winter.

birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawks will soon fly over in massive kettles as they head south. Quite a few stay, however, like the one pictured below, to become the most commonly seen raptor during the winter months.

birding Costa Rica

The northern migrants are definitely on their way, some have already arrived, and will a vagrant or two show up? A few Golden-cheeked Warblers grace us with their presence each year but I would like to find something new for the country like a Hammond’s Flycatcher or Cassin’s Vireo. Although not likely, the vagaries and unpredictability of migration combined with the fact that they reach northern Central America during the winter certainly makes these species a possibility when birding Costa Rica. I just have to get out there and find them!

This post is included in #133 of I and the Bird. Check out posts from other blogs about birds and birding in this edition at the DC Birding Blog.