Chomes, Costa Rica is this end of the road village on the Gulf of Nicoya. There is a sign for it on the Pan-American highway, but your average tourist just zooms on by as if the place never existed. I don’t know what the guide books say about Chomes but if the place is even mentioned at all, it’s surely something along the lines of, “nothing of interest there” or “don’t bother with Chomes”. If you didn’t watch birds, they would be right. A friend of mine and I went to Chomes on Saturday and we didn’t see any restaurants, hotels, or anything remotely related to tourism for that matter. That was Ok with us, though, because we weren’t visiting good old Chomes to stroll the dusty streets, watch a community soccer game, or learn how to pick pineapples. We were there for a much better reason and it was called, “shorebirds”.
Chomes is pretty much the shorebird capital of Costa Rica. As those long distance, long-legged migrants fly south, they stop off in the food-rich estuarine habitats of the Gulf of Nicoya. A lot also stay for the winter but even more pass through during the fall trifecta of August, September, and October. They use mudflats and mangroves all around the gulf but so many of those are inaccessible. Since few birders make it to hotspots that can be scanned with a spotting scope, I wonder how many rarities get missed.
We didn’t connect with any super rare birds at Chomes on Saturday but since we also couldn’t check the entire place, there could have easily been something like a Long-billed Curlew, phalaropes, jaegers, boobies, or much rarer birds among the maze of mangroves and shrimp ponds. Before the place was divied up to cultivate shrimp, it was probably a much more productive area of mangrove forests and natural mud flats. Nevertheless, a heck of a lot of birds still use the temporary mud flats that form in the shrimp ponds and you can drive along most of the dikes that criss-cross the area. Birding from the car in hot and shadeless wetlands reminded me of wildlife refuges up north and I half expected to see brown signs that depicted a flying goose. However, the total and utter lack of signage combined with the calls of Orange-fronted Parakeets and Groove-billed Anis reminded me that I was still in Costa Rica.
But before I talk any further about the wonderful, blazing hot shrimp ponds at Chomes, let me tell you about the birding on the way in. After leaving the highway, the road to Chomes goes for 9 kilometers through patches of dry forest, pasture, at least one old growth riparian zone, some wet fields, and way too many acres of bird-bereft pineapples. In case you didn’t know, do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica if you want to protect bird habitat! Lots of chemicals are used, they cover massive areas, and you would be lucky to find even one Tropical Kingbird. There should be laws that restrict the amount of land dedicated to farming pineapples and the chemicals used on them because it’s an incredibly unsustainable way to misuse invaluable natural resources.
Away from the pineapple fields, the birding was pretty good (surprise surprise)! With our hearts set on shorebirds and shrimp ponds, we only made a few stops in the dry habitats along the way but were immediately impressed by a Crane Hawk doing its usual floppy foraging act, flybys of Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and calling White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots. On another conservation note, Yellow-naped Parrots have become rather uncommon due to the cage bird trade. You can still see them in a lot of areas of Costa Rica, but we need to do more to protect nesting sites and educate people that keeping birds in cages is cruel and just plain wrong.
Other species near the Crane Hawk included White-lored Gnatcatchers, hordes of Yellow Warblers, one Red-eyed Vireo, a few Eastern Wood Pewees, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeaters, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Anis, a bunch of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Gray Hawk, White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves, Violaceous (Gartered Trogon), Turquoise-browed Motmot, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Rufous-naped Wren. All of these are a typical litany of birds that you run into when birding Costa Rica’ Pacific northwest and I’m sure we would have seen more had we started birding at dawn and concentrated our efforts in the riparian zones.
The road to Chomes.Here is what it sounded like: chomes road medley1.
Just before we reached Chomes, a field with tall grass and a hidden wetland yielded a dozen Double-striped Thick-Knees and a bunch of Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets. We wouldn’t have known about the wetland had we not seen the heads of the tall wading birds at the far end of the field. It was a shame that we couldn’t get closer to the wet area because it looked like perfect habitat for Pinnated Bittern- a potential lifer. I bet there was one or two out there in the tall, wet grass but my lifer P. Bitty will have to wait for a day with better visibility.
One of 12 Double-striped Thick-Knees near Chomes.
Looking forward to shorebirds, we drove with determination through the dusty streets of Chomes and after 4 blocks, came to a halt at the end of town. Where were the shrimp ponds? Why don’t they have a sign that shows a proud Marbled Godwit standing next to a smiling, claw-waving crustacean? If everyone was a birder, we would see so many cool avian-themed signs. There would be an annual laying of wreaths at monuments to the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Paroquet. We would see top ten hits of songs that paid homage to Nightingales, Northern Cardinals, and pratincoles, and poems and jokes about birds would grace greeting cards throughout the world.
“Your eyelashes are more beautiful than a Rhea’s, your voice more lovely than the caroling of a Hermit Thrush. Be My Valentine!”
“Macaws and albatrosses still look great at 65 and so do you. Happy Birthday!”
“If heaven exists, she is watching a flock of Pink-headed Ducks as a parade of Great Auks and Moas march through the streets. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”
But alas, crowds of New Yorkers aren’t exactly pulling out binoculars from briefcases to scan the sky for peregrines and residents of Chomes don’t hang out at the shrimp farms to count shorebirds. They are, however, aware of birders, friendly, and told us how to get to the shrimp ponds. When you get to what appears to be the last block in town (there aren’t that many), go left until you see an obvious gate with a blue archway. Ask for permission to enter and say that you would like to watch birds (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, you could say, “Podemos entrar para ver aves?”).
Someone should let you in and may also tell you that the main road to the beach is impassable. This was true on Saturday and so we could only check out a few of the ponds but we still saw a bunch of cool birds. Black-necked Stilts were the most common shorebird.
Black-necked Stilt. My camera really hates to focus on this skinny bird.
There were also quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, plenty of yelping Willets, and lots of Whimbrels. Hundreds of Black and Least Terns also entertained us by flying around and calling but we had to walk to the last shrimp pond on the right to hit the shorebird mother lode.
A glimpse of the Chomes shorebird mother lode.
That wonderful mud flat was pretty much crawling with shorebirds. A group of orangey Marbled Godwits held court in the middle with a bunch of Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns, two Elegant Terns, and one Black Skimmer! Elsewhere on the mud flat, there were a bunch of Spotted, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, and White Ibis. Yeah, it was pretty damn cool, especially because I picked up a few new year birds.
There might have been something else in that muddy shrimp pond but to keep from turning into dried out, wraith-birder husks, we walked back to the car for rehydration and AC. In checking out the road to the beach, we discovered that a massive water-filled hole was indeed preventing any further passage and therefore proceeded to do a 10 point turn to aim the car towards the exit.
Heading towards the exit. Note the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.
At the entrance (now exit), we had to wait five minutes for a friendly shrimp pond worker to unlock the gate. I don’t know how frequently people come and go at the shrimp farms so if you do go birding there, don’t stay until evening or you might spend the night in your car (or on dike with the mosquitoes for company).
I hope I make it down to Chomes at least one more time before the end of the year to pick up a rarity or two. It would be nice if I could drive to the beach but I don’t expect them to fill that huge hole anytime soon.
Willet pretending to be a dead branch at Chomes.