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Birding Costa Rica

Ferry, Lifer, and Tropical Dry Forest = A Fine Morning of Birding in Costa Rica

A fine morning of birding doesn’t have to include a lifer but when it does, it becomes a fine morning indeed. Like one that includes a high cup of smooth, award winning coffee accompanied by pan du chocolate and the chocolate just happens to have a 75% or higher cocoa component. When the lifer is unexpected, it’s like enjoying that same luxurious little repast accompanied by a winning lottery ticket. Last week, I hit that birding jackpot accompanied by chocolate headed Blue-footed Boobies, deep, dark, coffee-colored storm-petrels, and a sweet set of dry forest birds.

The day started in the middle of the night when we departed the Central Valley at 2:30 am. We needed to reach Puntarenas by 4:30 and since we arrived by 4:00, next time, I’ll be leaving at the almost just as crazily late/early hour of 3:00 am. And given the consistently nice birding surprises from the ferry, I hope to make that next trip within the next two months. Hopefully by then, the ferry dock will be fixed (it suffered some damage yesterday, thankfully after we did our trip), and I will see Sabine’s Gull, phalaropes, and other targets. But, back to the other day when we got that personal birding lottery ticket.

After parking at Frank’s Cabins (which the owners graciously opened at 4:00 am as soon as we called), Susan and I got our 800 colon tickets (that’s less than two bucks), boarded the boat, and walked up to the top deck, right in front. Aside from a flyby Back-crowned Night-Heron, we didn’t see anything else in the pre-dawn darkness but we knew that would change as the day broke over the calm estuarine waters of the Gulf of Nicoya.

The first birds were expected species like Brown Pelicans, flocks of White Ibis moving from roosting sites to mud flats near Puntarenas, frigatebirds, and a smattering of Royal, Sandwich, and Black Terns. When we reached one of the first drift lines, we got onto our first target or “good” bird. As with other occasions when I have seen Galapagos Shearwater, the fluttering, pot-bellied look of this one was revealed after constant scanning of the horizon. A check through the scope assured that it was indeed a Galapagos and not the much more rare Black-vented. We also saw a second bird ten minutes after the first.

An excellent year bird, especially when it can be seen from a quick and easy ferry ride!

As we moved forward on our hour and a half boat trip, we continued to scan the horizon as much as the few swells allowed. No storm-petrels yet nor many other birds but we did see several Blue-footed Boobies, all of which were juveniles.

The summer months are probably the best time to see Blue-footed Boobies in Costa Rica. I wonder where they come from? Cocos Island? Maybe even the Galapagos?

After the ferry docked, we had around two hours to kill before returning on the 9 am boat. Let’s see, not much to do in tiny Paquera and two hours to kill. Yeah, I think I’ll go birding! Fortunately, there is plenty of dry forest habitat around Paquera, most of it in various stages of second growth but still quite a few big trees and on Thursday, August 10, the green, rainy season vegetation overflowed with bird song. As we walked up the road, we heard and saw a good selection of species, the most common of which was Banded Wren.

As with other sites in the southern Nicoya Peninsula, we noticed that White-necked Puffbird was easier to see than many other sites (we saw three over the course of an hour and a half).

We were also entertained by the bright colors of Black-headed Trogons and Turquoise-browed Motmots, and the antics of various other dry forest species. Although we didn’t luck out with any super rare and enigmatic Pheasant Cuckoos, nor any year birds, the activity still made for a refreshing bird-filled break between ferry rides.

Around 8:00, we headed back to the boat, got our tickets, and boarded with a good number of tourists on their way back to the mainland, including one local guide who showed us pictures of Ornate Hawk-Eagle from his garden in La Gamba. Back on the ferry, we scanned with the scope hoping to find groups of feeding birds. No luck there but as the boat got underway, we eventually found birds flying back and forth. Most of these were Black Terns and a few Blue-footed Boobies but eventually, once again, constant scanning turned up different species. This time, they came in the form of a few Least Storm-Petrels doing their bat-like flight in the same area as some foraging Black Terns. Once again, the scope also came in handy to make a positive ID. Not long after, more scanning revealed what I first took to be a Black Storm-Petrel flying in from the south. However, its flight didn’t seem quite right for that species, and sure enough, the scope revealed an extensive white rump. Yes, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, another excellent year bird, and along with the bat-like Least, year bird number three!

Further on, maybe 30 minutes away from Puntarenas, we got our final and best bird of the day. While scanning to the south, we both noticed a larger, darker tern that was foraging with a small group of Black Terns. I figured it would probably be a Brown Noddy but the shape didn’t seem right for that species. The head looked more angular, and while checking through the scope, my jaw dropped when I noticed a distinctive, definite forked tail. Nope, not a Brown Noddy! Off hand,the only other species that came to mind was a juvenile Sooty Tern, a potential lifer!

The bird moved in the same direction as the boat and eventually flew across the bow as it moved towards the inner part of the gulf. Although it was pretty far off, occasional looks through the scope revealed a white flash on the wing linings. Based on illustrations of juvenile Sooty Tern, I had expected more white on the belly but once I got back home and checked images online, I breathed a sigh of successful relief after seeing several images of juvenile Sooty Terns that showed very little white on the belly and matched our bird exactly. Lifer achieved and a not very expected one either! In Costa Rica, this species mostly (or perhaps entirely) breeds on Cocos Island and is very rarely seen as close to shore as we saw it. But, that’s kind of how the ferry is- you never know what you are going to encounter and even when you expect Brown Noddy and Bridled Tern, you might end up seeing a Sooty Tern instead! I’ll take that lifer and hope to get out there again in a month or two because who knows what else is out there? Maybe I will find that Peruvian Booby that was reported the day after we took the ferry!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction mangroves

Birding Tambor Beach(not Barcelo) and the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry

During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.

When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.

When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.

On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.

On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.

The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of  6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a  driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.

A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.

At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.

immature Green-breasted Mango

A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.

As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.

Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.

A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera.  Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.

Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.

So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!

Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.

This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.

Rufous-naped Wren,

White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,

And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.

Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!

and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.

Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.

At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.

Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.

Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.