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The 2010 Carara Christmas Count

In the latter months of 2010, we opted for traveling to Niagara Falls, NY for Thanksgiving in lieu of Christmas. We may have missed out on watching “A Christmas Story” with the family and couldn’t go to my Aunt Florence’s and Uncle Kevin’s on Christmas Eve but the fact that we also missed out on massive snowfalls, blizzard conditions, and sleeping in airports kind of tells me that we made the right choice.

Another bonus of heading back to the falls for Turkey Day instead of being there for December 25th was the chance to participate in Christmas Counts. The count for Carara was held on December 28th and as you could expect for one of the best birding areas in Central America, it proved to be a very birdy time with around 360 species recorded!

Such a high total was achieved because several well organized teams were able to traverse a count circle that included such diverse habitats as lowland rain forest, middle elevation forest, dry forest, wetlands, mangroves, estuaries, edge, and the Pacific Coast.

My team covered the same route as when I did the count in 2008 and as with that CBC, I suspect that our 143 species for the day was the highest total for a team.

Although the official count was held on the 28th, it really started for most of us on the 27th with a logistics meeting held that date at 5:30 pm.

I can’t recall why I left Santa Barbara de Heredia at 2pm (instead of earlier as I had hoped) but I bet it had something to with chores around the house. The drive down was a beautiful one with sunny weather and few slow trucks on the new Caldera Highway but I still managed to arrive a bit late for the meeting because I got a bit lost while searching for shorebirds near Carara. I knew I needed them if I was going to break 600 species recorded for 2010 but high tides foiled any and all attempts at waders. Well, all except for Double-striped Thick Knee but since I already had that bird and was looking for denizens of the mudflats and not a big-eyed weird-looking thing that stands around all day in the grass, it wasn’t the type of shorebird that I had in mind.

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At least I got pictures of the Double-striped Thick-Knee.

At the meeting, Johan Fernandez, guide extraordinaire and coordinator of the count was giving the down-low on teams and areas to be covered. I met my team members, three young Tico birders and the Larsens, a couple I had guided around Arenal, we made plans to meet at 5am, and then I drove over to the lodging in the Carara field house to claim my bed for the night.

The bed was comfortable enough and I thought I was being smart by choosing one under a ceiling fan but because a peculiar ticking noise was associated with the fan, even ear plugs couldn’t help me sleep. I suppose that excitement about the count and chatting with other birders makes it commonplace to do a CBC on little sleep but I could sure do without that tradition. Maybe next time I will just pitch my tent in the woods.

So, with heavy, determined eyes, I was up by 4:30 and ready to go by 4:50. The other team members who braved the field house got into my car and we drove over to the HQ to meet up with the Larsens at 5. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that we would have to hike over to our first part of the route, The River Trail or “Laguna Meandrica” instead of casually driving 5 minutes to the entrance. We had to hike along the highway because it was too dark to follow indistinct trails in the forest and our vehicles couldn’t be left at the parking area for the River Trail because there wasn’t anyone there to watch them (there have been break-ins at that site on several occasions when guards were not present).

Hiking the two or so kilometers to the trail entrance from the HQ resulted in a few bird species such as Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Great Egret, and Eastern Meadowlark (yes, the other side of the highway is sadly deforested) but our goal was the birdy Laguna Meandrica Trail and so we didn’t tarry along the way. It was a relief to get away from the morning traffic of the coastal highway and onto such a fantastic trail for birding. Riparian forest, second growth, primary rainforest, and an oxbow lake probably make this one of the birdiest trails in Costa Rica.

The birdy Laguna Meandrica trail at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

As with many neotropical rainforests, our first birds on the trail were Common Pauraque quickly followed by Collared Forest-Falcon. Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers were next to be tallied but the dawn chorus was overall pretty quiet and low-key compared to 2008. Nevertheless, as we slowly made our way along the trail, other species of Carara’s rainforests were counted one by one; birds such as Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Slate-headed and Common Tody-Flycatchers, Northern Bentbill, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-breasted and Rufous and White Wrens, and much more. Rufous-tailed Jacamars called and things were coming along nicely when disaster suddenly struck! Well, it was a small disaster for me and the reason that you won’t see any images of birds other than the strange, big-eyed bird above. While pleasantly standing around and listening for birds, I was startled by the sound of my scope hitting the ground. Apparently, one of the legs of my tripod got tired of being extended, it folded up and the tripod fell over. Thankfully, my scope itself was OK but the head of the tripod broke in half! I could scarcely believe what had just happened but had to just keep counting the calling Black-hooded Antshrikes, twig-inspecting Plain Xenops, and chicky-tuck-tucking Summer Tanagers because unless you get tagged by a Fer-de-Lance, the CBC must go on!

I must admit that my enthusiasm for the count took just as hard a hit as the head of my tripod but the great birding helped me get over that in no time. One bird that soothed my feelings was one of our best for the day, Yellow-billed Cotinga! This species has become very rare at Carara and unfortunately, I wouldn’t even be surprised if it disappeared from the area because its population at Carara may have declined to a few pairs (!). We got the bird after spotting a few Chestnut-mandibled Toucans in a fruiting tree. As if on cue, just after mentioning that we should watch for cotingas in the same tree, a female Yellow-billed popped into view! Everyone on the team got looks at it and it may have been the only one for the count. Despite carefully scanning the foliage for a spot of shiny blue to find any hidden Turquoise Cotingas, we didn’t see any other frugivores and so continued onward to tick off flute-like Black-bellied Wrens, Pale-billed Woodpecker (via the double-knock), several more Lesser Greenlets and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Turquoise-browed Motmot.

Stoically searching a banana leaf for hidden birds after the breaking of the tripod.

Upon nearing the oxbow lake, as is usual for this part of the trail, we recorded Orange-collared Manakin and counted yet another Wood Thrush and Northern Waterthrush before heading to our little spot for viewing the wetlands. We were surprised to find that the floods from this past October had cleared out a great deal of vegetation at the oxbow lake. This made several crocodiles of all sizes easily visible but kept the wading birds rather far away. They were still identifiable, however, and we quickly found most possible herons, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, Anhinga, Prothonotary Warbler, and a few kingfishers (including American Pygmy). Of course because I couldn’t do any digiscoping, the pygmy kingfisher and then a Rufous-tailed Jacamar sat for long periods at eye level only twenty feet away. No images but still nice to see.

After substantially reducing much of our boxed lunches while sitting in the shade by the oxbow lake, it was off to explore the section of the trail that passes next to taller, more closed forest. By this time (it was 11 am), bird activity had gone waaaay down but we still got a few Riverside Wrens, and eventually hooked up with a mixed flock that gave us White-winged Becard. On our way back towards the road, Fiery-billed Aracari was recorded as was Long-tailed Manakin at the same fruiting fig but there were few other birds. Our biggest miss on this trail was Royal Flycatcher. To give an idea of how big of a miss this is, on other occasions, I have seen 6 to 7 individuals of this species literally hanging out right along the edge of or in vegetation that hangs above the trail! Such are the vagaries of tropical birding. In addition to the cotinga, one of our best finds was Ruddy Quail-Dove, a beautiful male that flew across the a stream bed and then sat still in the understory for perfect, prolonged views.

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The stream bed that held the quail-dove.

After doing the Laguna Meandrica trail for most of the morning, we trekked back along the highway to the HQ and picked up our only trogon of the day, a Black-headed that was perched on roadside wires. Trogons were another major miss. Slaty-tailed, a normally common bird at Carara, wasn’t recorded by a single team! I wonder of they went elsewhere in search of fruiting trees.

Our next major stop was the dry forest habitats found along the road known as “Guacimo” or “El Capulin”. Spishing brought out Rufous-capped Warbler, Nutting’s Flycatcher, lots of Yellow Warblers, Lesser Greenlets, and Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos. We got our Plain Wren for the day in addition to Brown Jays, Blue Grosbeak, one female Painted Bunting, and Indigo Buntings. Down by the river, we were treated to very close looks at Scarlet Macaws that were feeding in short, beach almond trees, lots of Baltimore Orioles, Steely-vented Hummingbird, flocks of Ruddy Ground-Doves, and other common bird species of edge and open country habitats. We also got a few surprises though in the form of Giant Cowbird and Harris’ Hawk. The cowbird is more expected on the Caribbean Slope (where there are lots of the birds they parasitize-oropendolas) and the hawk is just really uncommon in Costa Rica. Our last bird of the day was a Plain-capped Starthroat that often hangs out at Erythrina flowers at the Cabinas La Vasija.

It was yet another productive, long day of birding at Carara and although I broke my tripod in the process, on a very bright note, Dan Fender (a birder friend of mine) has helped me fix it. We used some super strong epoxy glue that he brought down from the states and even though I treat the tripod head in a delicate manner, it appears to work for digiscoping. I hope to show some images taken with the mended tripod head in my next post!

5 replies on “The 2010 Carara Christmas Count”

@Michael- I havent heard anything like that recently but if its closed, one should get the same species my taking the mangrove boat tour and visiting the trails at HQ (although Black-bellied Wren would be more difficult). It becomes impassable during the wet season and vehicles shouldnt be left there if no one is present to watch them but other than that it should be open.

I am interested in bird photography. Do you do such trips? Can you please send me by PM the costs? Thank you in advance.

I was here in mid-January. I found the character of the forest along the Sendero Laguna Meandrica to be dramatically changed in the aftermath of the floods — way more open — and I imagine this is why many of the “regular” birds aren’t being seen here. It will be interesting to see how quickly the understory returns; I don’t imagine it will take long. The oxbow lake, on the other hand, seems to have had a ton of sediment dumped into it, and much was already dry by mid-January! I think that spot is substantially changed; we’ll see if the Pygmy Kingfishers and Boat-billed Herons persist here.

I’m really glad to have discovered your blog. Great observations, really well written, thank you! With luck our paths will cross sometime soon.

@Mark- Glad you like the blog and yes, hopefully will see you in Costa Rica sometime. Yes, the forest is more open and I was surprised to see how the lagoon had changed. Avifauna doesnt seem to have changed too much however- Boat-billed Herons and American Pygmy Kingfisher are still there and we recorded most expected species on the Christmas Count. I am headed over to Carara this weekend so I hope to give an update on birding there soon.

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