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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Ferry Birding in Costa Rica is Always Good

Most folks don’t consider any degree of pelagic birding when visiting Costa Rica but if you have an extra day or two, and enjoy birding from a boat, it will be worth your while. Get into the pelagic zone and at least three species of storm-petrel, two shearwaters, and a few other birds are likely along with a real chance at rarities like Tahiti Petrel, Parkinson’s Petrel, Galapagos Petrel, Christmas Shearwater, and so on. We still need to get a better handle on which species show up when and where but as long as you head into the pelagic zone, you will be in for some exciting birds. The main problem with that has been finding boats to take folks to the places where the shore is out of sight but, hopefully, it will be easier to arrange such trips soon.6

In the meantime, if you want an easy, quick “pelagic”, you can always take the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Although you can never expect too much in terms of blue water birds, there’s always a chance at storm-petrels, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and who knows what else? Uncommon species and Costa Rican rarities of every spectrum have been seen including Sabine’s Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Peruvian Booby. At the same time, you can also take the ferry and have your most exciting birding be limited to Black, Royal, and Sandwich Terns but since the trip is so easy to do, and something different usually shows up anyways, I believe that doing a bit of ferry birding is always worth the effort. If you are up for it, here’s some stuff to keep in mind when ferry birding in Costa Rica:

The ferry won’t stop for birds– Yes, that is a “Captain Obvious” statement but just a reminder that ferry birding won’t be as birder friendly as a true chumming, bird chasing, pelagic trip. You won’t see as many birds but I still think that the ferry kind of makes up for it with the low cost, easy logistics, and birding opportunities especially when you can’t arrange a true birding trip to the pelagic zone.

Get in line early to find space on the upper deck– You want to get a coveted spot on the upper deck because you will see more birds. The ferry is usually stable enough to use a scope, and it’s also short enough (about an hour and a half) to make sea sickness an extremely rare event. Getting there about an hour before departure time should work. If you arrive in Puntarenas before then, park near the lighthouse and scope from there. I have seen pelagic species from this spot on more than one occasion (by that I mean three species of storm-petrels, Brown Noddy, and Galapagos Shearwater).

 

Day trip? Much cheaper to park the car in Puntarenas– When I do the ferry (as I did with friends yesterday), I park at Frank’s Cabinas for the day and pay around $1.50 for a ferry passenger ticket (yep, that adds up to around $3 round trip). Frank’s Cabinas is half a block north of the ferry dock and has a prominent sign. It tends to fill up on the weekend and he charges around $10 to park there for a day. If you do take a vehicle across, it is around $45 each way.

Consider the 5 a.m. ferry– Since the next ferry doesn’t leave until 9, you will probably see more birds by taking that first ferry at dawn. Although I have seen quite a few birds at other times of the day, I plan on embarking on the five a.m. ferry on my next trip. I would have already done so but have always felt pretty reluctant to leave the house by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. Although this means that you could mix owling and potooing with an early ferry ride, you can also just stay at Frank’s Cabinas the night before. He charges around $50 for a room that includes the most important factor for steamy Puntarenas; air conditioning.

Bring the car and make a day or more of it– Likewise, you can also take the ferry across with a vehicle like so many other non-birders on the boat. This is worth it if you will be spending one or more nights in the southern Nicoya Peninsula or if you just feel like combining birding on the ferry with a day of birding near Paquera and in the southern Nicoya. Do that and you might end up with a day list that includes Galapagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

Be ready for anything– Most of all, when birding from the ferry, just be ready for anything. When we take into account that the ferry crosses part of a nutrient rich gulf that has seen rather little birding coverage, you have to be open to the possibility of rare and unexpected species showing up. By definition, this means that species like Inca Tern and Nazca Booby are far from regular, but they just might show up when you take that boat. The highly pelagic White Tern has been seen in the gulf, who knows what else might fly into view? I know that every time I have taken the ferry, one or more interesting species have occurred. On the trip yesterday, although I had hoped and sort of expected to see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and at least one storm-petrel species, instead, we were surprised with a Parasitic Jaeger, and then a Pomarine Jaeger not long before the boat reached Puntarenas on the trip back! Both of these were excellent year birds and tough birds to see in Costa Rica even when they are expected. With that in mind, I should mention that Parasitic Jaeger has been seen during the summer months in Puntarenas in the past.

The dark juvenile Pomarine Jaeger that sadly flew away as soon as we saw it. 

Yesterday, I picked up three year birds and although there wasn’t as much avian activity as on other occasions, I can’t help but wonder what showed up earlier on or later in the afternoon. Which species flew across the path of the ferry today? You never know unless you go and since it’s an easy trip to do, keep it in mind when birding in Costa Rica. Ideally, I hope I can bird from the ferry at least twice more this year. To learn more about where and how to bird in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you on the ferry or elsewhere in the field!

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Pacific slope

More Ferry Birding in Costa Rica

The ferry is the poor person’s pelagic. Or one for people with limited time. Or, on some routes, a quick fix for folks who suffer from wave action. However you want to call it, a ferry is an easy way to see birds from a boat, and by “birds” I mean the ones that are especially hard to see from shore. The Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is the easiest way to see some pelagics in Costa Rica and although you can’t count on Pterodromas or other wicked flying denizens of the super deep, the boat does cross one of the richest estuarine gulfs in Central America. I’ve been thinking more and more about that gulf. Like about what lives in those waters and what comes there from the ocean to feed. In terms of birds, it’s pretty darn important. The mud flats are used by resident wading birds and thousands of migrant shorebirds, the mangroves are home to the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and nurseries for thousands of fish, and the waters provide food for dolphins, tuna, thousands of Black Terns (which seem to be there all year long), and various other seabirds.

Extensive mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya.

It’s the “various others” that draws me to the gulf, especially during these El Nino times. Storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, and Blue-footed Booby have been regular, and many other birds are possible. Thanks to near daily trips and reports by Jorge Zuniga Lopez, we have heard about Sabine’s Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Costa Rica’s first Peruvian Booby! Since a couple of these were seen the past month, yesterday, I made time for a trip down to Puntarenas to watch from the ferry. I came prepared with snacks, binos, scope, camera, and a vigilant mindset that would hopefully yield new year birds and additions to my Costa Rica list.

My first stops were the cruise ship pier and the lighthouse area in Puntarenas, two spots that can turn up pelagics. The pier had a couple of boobies along with regular terns and Brown Pelicans but I just could’t turn that juvenile Brown Booby into a Red-footed. Over at the lighthouse, scanning with a scope revealed swarms of Black Terns along with one Elegant, and a few Royals and Sandwich Terns. Eventually, I spotted a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters, pretty far off but still identifiable. That point really is the most accessible place to see some pelagics from shore in Costa Rica because it’s close to a spot where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf. You could easily go and see nothing but on one occasion, I could even identify Black Storm-Petrels there with binoculars.

The lighthouse area.

The ferry got underway around 9 and I started seeing birds shortly thereafter. Most were Black Terns.

These Black Terns were actually seen from shore

But, a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters also made an appearance, one right in front of the boat!

Galapagos Shearwater.
Black Terns, a Galapagos Shearwater, and a possible Black Tuna- check out the tail on the left!

Further on, I saw a Blue-footed Booby. Oddly, one of the only boobies seen that day. Other days have resulted in several.

Blue-footed Booby.
A typical feeding flock of Black Terns in the gulf.

Eventually, scanning the hordes of Black Terns on a drift line turned up a Brown Noddy.

A Brown Noddy shares a piece of driftwood with a Black Tern.

Interestingly, I didn’t see storm-petrels until the return ride to Puntarenas around 11:30 and noon. Unfortunately, none came very close to the ferry but they gave me enough studies to watch several Black Storm-Petrels, one or two Least Storm-Petrels, and just as I was about to give up scanning while the boat moved up and down, one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!

Although I didn’t get my Sabine’s Gull nor see any mega rarity, I did pick up three year birds (two Storm-Petrels and Least Tern). Once again, I also exited the ferry feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of what can be seen in the Gulf of Nicoya. What flew in after the ferry went past? What happens to be visiting the gulf today, especially the deeper parts? If you have the time, the ferry is easy enough to do. Park the vehicle at Franks Cabinas just north of the ferry ($8 for the whole day), buy a ticket for 810 colones (maybe $1.50), and get on board. After getting off the ferry in Paquera, just walk right back through the ticket area, buy another $1.50 ticket for the return trip, and scan for birds on the way back. The trip takes an hour and a half. Make sure to get on first and pick a spot right up front on the top deck.

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Birding Costa Rica non avian organisms

Pelagic day Trip off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

“I love pelagic birding but it doesn’t like me”. I wish I had a tee-shirt with this slogan. I would wear it with pride when birding from docks, piers, and rocky promontories. Other birders leaving the shore behind in pursuit of petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and other drab yet very exciting birds would see the shirt and immediately understand why I stayed back on solid, dry ground to happily (if fruitlessly) scan the open ocean.

As they chugged their way out beyond the drift lines and the wave action carried out its unrelenting, uncompromising barrage upon their land-tuned senses, those who unwittingly added their own, personal brand of chum to the vast ocean might wonder if they should have joined me in surrendering all opportunities at getting very cool, tube-nosed lifers.

As those poor, suffering birders left last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast on the surface of the water, a mental image of me and my shirt would appear and what was previously cast off as fodder for the brain would suddenly take on profound, personal importance.

“Ahhhh, so that’s why he wore the shirt and stayed behind! Oh why or why did I scoff? Why did I not join him back on the wonderful, stable ground?”

Those rare few who are contemplative in times of duress might feel an odd “Eureka!” sensation upon realization that the seabirds who were partaking of their stomachal stew had been fed as a nestling in a very similar manner. The idea that they were bonding with and becoming momentary foster parents for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters would at the least spark an inner smile and perhaps such birders would feel more justified for sacrificing their stomach to the waves.

Most birders, however, have no such Zen-like thoughts as they hang over the railing or urgently, silently fight to calm their inner ears. No, they simply begin to wonder, “Was this trip worth it”?

As you may have surmised, I have problems with sea sickness. Although I liked roller coasters in my younger years, I have never been extremely thrilled about the Tilt-a Whirl, Spinning Teacups, Pirate Ship, or other amusement park rides. I think if I rode one of those now, after all of the spinning, vertigo, and brain-scrambling madness had come to a stop, if I were even capable of lifting the safety bar, I would probably be about as coherent as melted butter.

It was with extreme and sophomoric bravery then that I ventured out onto the open ocean for my first Costa Rican pelagic birding trip this past Sunday, November 14th. I was coaxed into accepting an invitation to bird the offshore waters of the Costa Rican Pacific Coast by the certainty of multiple lifers, new birds for my Costa Rican list and the year, and that on past pelagic trips with the same boat, the seas had never been “rough”.

I had such trepidations about doing a pelagic trip here or anywhere else due to the strong impressions left by my first and only pelagic birding experience off the coast of Oregon in 1996. What a memorable trip that was! Hundreds of phalaropes, flocks of Sabines Gulls, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, all three jaegers, dozens of Black-footed Albatross and two Laysan Albatross! The birds were fantastic but the way in which I saw them should have been included as a footnote in Dante’s “Inferno”.

Despite having taken Dramamine, I greeted nearly every bird species that approached the boat with unbridled vomit. You would have thought that they would have flown back up to the Bering Strait after such a horrible reception but fortunately, seabirds are such hardy, salty souls that they didn’t even blink an eye. For example, my lifer Laysan Albatross flew so close to the boat that I nearly stained its immaculate white plumage. Despite unwittingly chumming the water mere inches from this majestic bird, it just drifted on past on massive wings, completely unfazed.

I got a bunch of lifers and the experience was incredible but I assure you, I paid such a strong price for it that I had pretty much written off seeing all pelagic species anywhere unless they were blown to shore or inland by massive hurricanes.

Last week, though, local birder and friend Paul Murgatroyd sent me an invitation to join him and six other stalwart birders for a day trip out onto the Pacific in search of avian treasure. While I was pondering whether or not I should accept this gracious invitation, Paul called and with tales of smooth waters, hardly anyone feeling ill over the course of six trips, and the chance at several lifers, how could I say no?

Doing the trip without getting sick actually sounded feasible and was guaranteed to be an incredible experience. I would bring something other than Dramamine to fool the inner ear, nibble on salty snacks, watch the horizon, and see some new birds!

Early Sunday morning, eight of us departed the Los Sueños Marina on “The Floating Bear”, a fifty foot Beneteau sailboat that had brought Paul and other birders to Costa Rica’s first Tahiti Petrel, Christmas Island Shearwater, and other birds you just can’t see from the mainland. We knew we would have to be very lucky to get these and other deep water species because we wouldn’t be heading past the continental shelf but in such uncharted waters for birding, you almost can’t even guess at what might or might not show up!

Birding Costa Rica

Chugging straight out to sea, our first memorable sighting was of a mother Humpbacked Whale with her baby! They were kind of far away but still impressive enough to elicit excited exclamations from all on board as we watched mother then baby leaping out of the water to breach off of Playa Herradura. A few Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls could be seen but for the most part, inshore, the sea was devoid of bird life.

Birding Costa Rica

Water everywhere but not a drop to drink…

After a short detour, our trusty skipper “Greivin” pointed the bow towards Tahiti and we slowly but surely made our way into the realm of tube-nosed birds. As we left the shore behind, the water became ruled by an endless series of waves and thus began the battle with my inner ear for supremacy of my stomach. The fiercest fighting took place during the first two or so hours of the trip because this is when the inner ear makes its most vehement protest and attempts to coerce the gut into becoming its ally. I would never have won the fight on my own but that’s why I enlisted help in the form of a Dramamine like medication by the name of, “Gravor” (oddly enough sounding much like the name of the skipper) as well as an ample supply of salty plantain chips and crackers, and the determination to watch the horizon for hours on end. That little pill sometimes made it tough to think and would be a serious hindrance to giving an eloquent speech but it definitely helped me keep control of the stomach and calm down the inner ear when looking for pelagics off the Costa Rican coast this past Sunday. Nibbling crackers, sipping water, and watching the horizon also played their part but I think it was the Gravor that did the job.

My Sunday sea sickness challenge was toughest about one or two hours into the trip and it was also around this time that the specialty birds showed. We didn’t see huge numbers, didn’t chum the waters, and good looks were made difficult (at least for me) by the rocking movement of the boat but in addition to Magnificent Frigatebirds, Royal Terns, and Laughing Gulls near shore, we managed to see:

Brown Boobies flapping past the boat and looking smart in perfect light, we had these for much of the day and saw flocks winging their back to the islands they use for roosting after foraging on the open ocean.

Small groups Sabines Gulls (!) with crisp contrasting markings on their wings, I hadn’t seen this beautiful gull for many years.

A few flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes riding the waves like gray and brown bathtub toys, most of their kind had probably already passed through the area.

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters coming in three different phases, we saw dozens of this life bird throughout the day.

Birding Costa Rica

The two dark specs are Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

A single Pink-footed Shearwater was a good record for the area.

A few Audubons’ Shearwaters were seen. This lifer was my favorite bird of the trip because two individuals flew too close to the boat for binoculars. I snapped away with a hand-held camera and look what happened!

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Black Storm-Petrels zipping low over the waves like shadowy nighthawks, this life bird was the most common storm-petrel.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel was another much wanted life bird for me. We had very few white-rumped storm-petrels on Sunday. I got a good look at the first group of birds and saw features for Wedge-rumped but may have missed a Band-rumped (gasp!) because Kevin Easley mentioned seeing a bird that may have been this species. In the second group of white-rumped storm petrels, I have a mental snapshot of one bird that lacked the white wedge of the Wedge-rumpeds as well as white on the undertail. I suspect it was a Leaches or Band-rumped and hope that photos taken by Kevin or Juan Diego will reveal its identity.

We had surprisingly few Least Storm-Petrels. The only storm-petrel I had seen in Costa Rica before this trip, they were pretty easy to recognize by their bat-like flight.

Several Pomarine Jaegers, adults and juveniles. How can one not be enthralled by a chunky, falcon-like seabird? Two big juveniles following a fishing boat were masquerading as skuas.

Parasitic Jaeger– at least one dark phase adult flew low over the water and was one of our first birds of the day.

We had scattered sightings of Black Terns until a flock of a 100 or so flew past around 4 pm.

At least one Common Tern was a year bird for me.

On the non-avian front, we had twenty or so Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, one billfish species that may have been a Swordfish, a few Manta Rays jumping clear out of the water, and two species of dolphins, Striped and Spotted. These were a highlight of the trip as they purposely swam close to the boat and proceeded to porpoise alongside us.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Striped Dolphins.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Spotted Dolphins.

Our trip back towards shore was more easy-going than the way out because we rode swell after shore-going swell the whole time. Night fell at least an hour before we pulled into the marina. As everyone else descended below decks, I opted for staying up top to feel the wind and watch the dark waters go by. It was an experience made limbo-like by the sounds of constant wind and waves and onshore lights that never appeared to get any closer. As we approached shore, I could smell land- a mixture of smoke, earth, and dank, tropical vegetation. The dark forms of two Magnificent Frigatebirds hovering above the mast of the Floating Bear also reminded us that we were no longer coursing over the open sea. We had made it back from the watery pelagic lands after the briefest of jaunts into uncharted birding territory and I had done so without getting sick! I’m not sure when I will find myself in the company of pelagic birds again but until then, I will always be wondering just what else is out there beyond the horizon.