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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.

9 replies on “Migrants are on their way back to Costa Rica”

Hi, Pat –

It’s interesting that you are seeing migrants when they haven’t arrived here in western NC in full force yet. The spread of time that different species or different birds take to leaver their breeding grounds makes for the best time for birding around here. In just a few weeks, the migration will be at its peak on our property. I have done a 48 hour yard count for the past three years and look very much forward to the best birding we get. This week, I saw 8 species of Warblers, (Black-and-White,Parula,Black-throated Green,Magnolia, Chestnut-sided,Redstart,Prairie,Hooded), one early Swainson’s Thrush, one each Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos. Common Nighthawks are typically passing through but we don’t often look up at the right time to see them. Last year, 50+ went over our heads in late afternoon. They were such silent fliers that if we hadn’t looked up, we would have never witnessed such a cool sight!
Dogwood and Spicebush berries are ripening which means Thrushes will be here soon. Mostly Swainson’s but I keep watching for Gray-cheeked or Veery’s and there’s usually a Wood Thrush still hanging around. Chimney Swifts have scattered; we’re not seeing them regularly as we did every evening during the early breeding season. They won’t really group up and leave until early October.
New yardbirds last year were Kentucky Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Broad-winged Hawk, Black-billed Cuckoo. We have a 115 species list for the past 5 years.
Funny, a Yellow Warbler is not one of them.
I thought you’d like to hear a little about the progress of migration a few thousand miles away.


Well, I have only seen a probably Yellow Warbler so far but other people have seen a variety of species. Yes, interesting that some arrive here without making themselves very noticeable in North Carolina. That 48 hour count would be fun. It sounds like you guys have a great place for birds. Funny that Yellow Warbler hasn’t showed up yet! How cool to get Hooded and Prairie Warblers. Those were uncommon or rare during migration in Niagara. Down here, Hoodeds are uncommon during the winter (really common in southeastern Mexico during the winter) and Prairie is a rare vagrant.

Interesting to hear about the nighthawks trying to sneak away to the neotropics. They do the same thing while migrating through Costa Rica on their way to South America- huge numbers but easy to miss.

Chimney Swifts pass through in huge numbers. It’s an incredible sight on good migration days to see an aerial river of Chimney Swifts stretching from horizon to horizon in the Caribbean lowlands. Once in a while, you see a Black Swift with them.

That’s a great yard list! It will be some time before plants in our tiny backyard grow big enough to even attract Kiskadees.

It’s always cool to hear about migration- such a magical time in the north.

Here, the Swifts will be gathering soon near the big, old chimneys in town before they migrate. There is a week in late September at dusk when people will bring out lawn chairs and soft drinks to watch as hundreds of Swifts swirl around above these chimneys and drop in a few dozen at a time.
Of course, these are all Chimney Swifts. Liz and I have looked for Black Swifts in Washington and Colorado, once hiking many upward miles to a waterfall where they supposedly nested. We missed the Swifts but had a great hike.
We also looked for Swifts at the Catarata at Rara Avis, also without any luck. On our second attempt, rain came so hard and suddenly we were soaked in two minutes, ending our search pretty quickly.


That’s awesome that people sit outside to watch the swifts funnel into chimneys.
I have also had similar experiences with Black Swifts in Colorado! In fact, I don’t think I have seen that bird in the USA- only in Mexico and Costa Rica and I don’t see them very often in Costa Rica. Most reliable way to see them here is during migration.
No luck with swifts for me either at Rara Avis. Both times I have been there, I hoped to get White-chinned Swift but only saw White-collareds.

I have this connection with warblers but I can only understand their hyperactive ways and language by drinking huge amounts of coffee to approach their activity level. Haha, I wish I could understand them! Yes, migration is such an exciting time- I’m anxious to get out into the field and see what may have arrived. Maybe tomorrow morning I will go for a walk.

Great post – makes me want to take a trip to Costa Rica! I’ve birded Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico (Yuchatan) but have always wanted to head a little further south.

Haven’t seen much in the way of warbler activity up here in British Columbia – a few Wilson’s Warblers around and some Common Yellowthroats last week. We’re just starting to see the shore bird migration on the coast building.

Thanks- yes, it’s pretty exciting birding in Costa Rica and different enough from the countries you mention to warrant a trip. I would love to bird Guatemala and Honduras some day. When I was in 1996, I had planned on traveling back to the states by land to pick up birds along the way but I copped out for a much quicker and vastly easier plane ride home. I regret not doing the overland birding odyssey north though because I still need to bird the northern Central American highlands.

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