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Birding Near Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

This past weekend, I got in a bit of birding around Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. When we left the house on Friday, I had visions of augmenting my year list with everything from waders to Thicket Tinamou and Elegant Trogon. I desperately need these and other “Guanacaste” birds if I’m going to break the 600 mark by December 31st. Although I realized that I wouldn’t be able to focus on birds the entire trip, I figured that I still had a pretty good chance of picking up most targets due to the sleep-in factor. Although my wife, three year old daughter, and mother-in-law don’t watch birds as fervently as myself, they won’t get out of bed until at least 8:30 or even 9 if they don’t have to. I think they love to sleep in on weekends because they need to get up by 5 or even 4 in the morning on weekdays. Whatever reasons they have for dreaming away the early morning, this works out perfectly for me because I can start birding pre-dawn and head back just as bird activity slows down around 8:30.

I planned on checking out marshy fields for White-tailed Nightjar, picking up Pacific Screech-Owl in any wooded area, and catching the dawn chorus in areas of mixed habitats. Although I lacked “gen” on the best birding spots near Playa Hermosa, I wasn’t worried at all because the undeveloped nature of Guanacaste makes it easy to find good habitat and lots of birds. Large areas of intact dry forest are hard to come by outside of protected areas but you can still get most (if not all) of the forest species in old riparian groves.

With my foolproof plan in mind, I aimed the car towards the promised birds of Guanacaste ready and eager to clean up on target birds, get photos of things like Banded Wren and Streak-backed Oriole, and maybe even connect with migrant shorebirds. Not far from San Jose, however,  Murphy’s Law, Bad Luck, or whatever you want to call it (I also like “throwing a spanner into the works”) hit us exactly where it counts. As we left the Central Valley, my poor little Miranda suddenly threw up all over “Vaca”, her big plush cow. We figured this stemmed from over indulging on candy as Friday was the official holiday of “Dia del Nino” or “Kids Day” but when she kept throwing up, I began to suspect that she might have some virus adapted to parasitising cells of the digestive tract. Although she wasn’t feverish, by the time we arrived at the Villas Huetares in Playa Hermosa, Miranda was undoubtedly ill. My wife and mother-in-law refused to let go of their “too much candy” hypothesis but since they also believe that you can catch a cold from rainy weather, I don’t give much weight to their diagnoses. As Miranda threw up over the course of that first night at Villa Huetares, I realized that my plan was probably going to to be put on hold. If she still threw up in the morning, had a fever, or was not holding down water, I was going to bring her to the nearest hospital (mostly to keep her hydrated).

It was a fitful night but by the time the morning sun lit up the hotel courtyard, Miranda was sound asleep. I made my way onto the balcony outside our room and looked for birds. Murphy’s Law apparently has something against Streak-backed Orioles because I just couldn’t get a good picture of them but I at least managed some Ok shots of Inca Dove,

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Stripe-headed Sparrow, and

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Groove-billed Ani.

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Other birds around the hotel included flybys of Orange-fronted Parakeets and one pair of Yellow-naped Parrots, Yellow Warblers, TKs, Social and Boat-billed Flys, Great Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, lots of White-winged Doves, Cinnamon Hummingbird, and Turquoise-browed Motmot. These are all par for the course in Guanacaste but were nice to see anyways.

When Miranda awoke, she wasn’t her usual jolly, mischievous self but she was certainly looking better. Much to my relief, she was also eating and drinking a bit without vomiting so it looked like we wouldn’t need to make that hospital visit after all. Over the course of that first full day, we went to the beach but it was mostly a bust for birds. Scanning the rocky shorelines didn’t reveal any Wandering Tattlers or Surfbirds and terns were 100% absent. I did pick up one year bird though; a Brown Booby that flew in and made a few dives before heading to fishier waters.

In the afternoon, I was finally able to get out and put all of my attention on the birds. I picked a route that took me towards the Tempisque River near the town of Filadelphia in the hopes of finding some birdy wetlands. While driving, I saw a flock of Yellow-naped Parrots, more groups of Orange-fronted Parakeets, Crested Carcaras, White-tailed Kite, a pair of Double-striped Thick-Knees sitting under a big tree in the middle of a very short lawn, and dozens of Blue-black Grassquits. Past Filadelphia, I realized that I had made a mistake in taking that route because the surrounding habitat consisted of sugarcane fields. Aside from an occasional roadside ditch, I didn’t come across any wetlands but got a year bird in the form of the Bank Swallows that were perched on wires and feeding above the fields. Mixed in with them were several Barn and Cliff Swallows.

As the magic hour of 4pm approached, I took the road from Filadelphia to Sardinal and realized that this was where I should have focused my efforts in the first place. The road was wide enough to pull over and bird for most of its length, and it was flanked by such habitats as scrubby fields, grasslands, a wetland or two, savannah-like habitats, and riparian growth. I couldn’t stop everywhere because I wanted to be back to the hotel by 5:30, but I still managed to get in some nice birds. The summer sounding song of White-collared Seedeaters was a constant companion, a male Blue Grosbeak that sang from a wire was pretty awesome, and I got my year Brown-crested Flycatcher. At a grassy stream, spishing brought in at least a dozen Yellow Warblers while a Green Kingfisher stared down at the water and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats sang from the fields. Rufous-backed Wrens and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers were pretty common and White-throated Magpie-Jays made occasional appearances. There were also a lot of Inca, Common-Ground, and Ruddy-Ground Doves but I couldn’t turn any of them into much wanted Plain-breasted Ground-Dove.

I had hoped to hit that area the following morning or bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia but that plan was abandoned when I became afflicted with the same illness that had besieged my daughter. My suspicions of stomach flu were confirmed as I unwillingly emptied my gut throughout the night. The following morning was spent resting up and sipping water with a splash of Gatorade so I could drive back up to the San Jose area. As me and Miranda watched kids television shows in the cool, dark room of the hotel, I just felt relieved that we never had to go to the hospital. Even if I didn’t see or hear all my target birds, we found a great place to stay and will probably visit again before the end of 2011. Next time we visit, I will probably focus more on the road between Playa Panama and Playa Hermosa as there were several places to pull off and bird, the traffic is pretty light, and it passes through scrubby mangroves, forest, savannah, sugarcane, and some rice fields that could attract wetland species.

On a side note, if you are headed to Guanacaste, there are plenty of options for accommodations. In addition to all inclusive resorts, there are also lots of smaller, very nice hotels, equipped villas, bed and breakfasts, and cheaper, backpacker options (including camping). Villas Huetares turned out to be the perfect choice for us and we hope to head back sometime soon. During the off-season, they charge $90 per night for a villa equipped with two large rooms with two beds each. The kitchen had a refrigerator, gas stove, sink, and a cupboard with pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, etc. There were also two pools, one of which is for kids, and the place is just 200 meters from the beach. The next time we visit, we hope to share a villa (and costs) with friends and their young daughter and bring most of our own food and drink. I’ll bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia, search the rice fields and wetlands for Spotted Rail and Masked Duck, and get all of my target birds! Well, that’s the plan as long as Murphy’s Law doesn’t go into effect.

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