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big year Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Birding Costa Rica in 2011

Just two days left until 2011 comes to an end and 2012 is ushered in with fireworks, rivers of spirited drink, and grapes. Well, at least in Latin America there are grapes. You are supposed to eat 12 and then you get good luck for the coming year. I can’t recall if I took part in the grape-eating tradition at the end of 2010 but I must have done something right because I had a good year for birding in Costa Rica. Although spates of rain in January and October caused landslides and hindered birding for a couple of weeks, overall, the weather was pretty nice. Even though we don’t get snow down here in these tropical latitudes, we can definitely get enough rainfall for it to cause some unwelcome issues. Basically, we don’t see as many birds through the sheets of falling water and sometimes can’t even get to them due to landslides and flooding. There was a bit of that in 2011, but it wasn’t as bad as other years so I am of the opinion that we had good luck with the weather.

A landslide encountered while birding with Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds.

Numbers of Quetzals and some other highland frugivores seemed to be down but most birders still connected with them. On another unfortunate note, La Selva has finally put a guardhouse at the entrance road so this might not be birdable unless you stay there or take one of their tours. I asked the guard a month ago but he had no idea- not a good sign. But enough of those low points because they were far outnumbered by positive happenings, sightings, and good birding vibes! In no necessary order, here are my personal top 12 highlights from birding Costa Rica in 2011:

1. Cinchona: The Cafe de Colibri is up and running again. It’s not the two story structure filled with birds like it used to be but the feeders are steadily approaching their former glory. On a recent visit, Prong-billed Barbets and Emerald Toucanets casually fed on papayas and other tropical fruits as we ate breakfast. The hummingbird feeders also produced with Coppery-headed Emerald, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Thorntail, and 5 other species.

Avian scenery from the Cafe de Colibries at Cinchona.

2. Virgen del Socorro and the road to San Rafael de Varablanca: The road is most definitely open and the birding is good! Nightingale Wren and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet were highlights from a recent trip there. The road also now continues on to San Rafael de Varablanca and passes through quite a bit of high quality middle elevation forest. I hope to survey that and will be posting about it.

Virgen del Socorro is a good site for Torrent Tyrannulet.

3. Veragua Christmas Count: I heard a lot about the place and went with high expectations. Oh how they were met! Make efforts to go there because it’s one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica. If you can do the place over a few days with a good birding guide, you might pick up most of the Caribbean lowland and foothill specialties. Accommodation is basic but maybe it can be done as a day trip from more comfortable lodging in southeastern Costa Rica?

It’s a good site for Bare-necked Umbrellabird from December until February and maybe at other times of the year too!

4. Dry days at Tortuguero: Our local birding club timed our visit to coincide with the drier weather seen on the Caribbean slope during October. This was a highlight because the place gets soooo much rain. The raptor migration was also nothing short of spectacular.

Raptor migration in Costa Rica.

5. El Copal: Although we missed Lovely Cotinga, the near non-stop birding almost made up for it. I ran into one of the biggest mixed flocks I have ever seen, saw several White-vented Euphonias, lots of tanagers, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Spectacled Owl, Sunbittern, Snowcaps, and lots more. Off the beaten track but darn good!

El Copal is a very good site for Snowcap.

6. Cerro Lodge: The birding just keeps getting better at this place. Really, if you need a place to stay when birding the Carara area, this is where you should go. Villa Lapas and Punta Leona are nice but you pretty much see the same birds there as you do in the park. In the dry/moist habitats at Cerro, you get a different suite of species, the restaurant overlooks the forest and is thus excellent for getting flybys of parrots, macaws, parakeets, and raptors (I had 8 species of Psitaccids there a few days ag0), and Black and white Owl is just about guaranteed (one even flew through the outdoor restaurant in pursuit of a katydid a few days ago). The feeders are also busy with birds such as Fiery-throated Aracari, White-throated Magpie Jay, and Hoffmann’s Woodpecker. Now that the Porterweed bushes have flourished, they have also become fantastic for hummingbirds. I had 7 species there the other day and there’s a very good chance that these natural feeders will attract rarities.

Fiery-billed Aracaris are beautiful toucans.

Steely-vented Hummingbirds are pretty common at Cerro Lodge for much of the year.

7. Catfish Ponds in Guanacaste: The northwestern part of Costa Rica isn’t just known for harboring bird species that relish dry forest. It also holds some of the best wetlands in the country. While birders will experience some of the best wetland action at Palo Verde National park, they might also see some good stuff at the catfish ponds near Liberia. Found on the road from Liberia to Sardinal and Playa del Coco, these ponds can be accessed by paying a $6 entrance fee at an international school and church on the northern side of the road. Reedy marshes grow in several of the ponds and should be good for rails, Masked Duck, and other wetland species. On a long day trip there to look for migrant ducks in October, we also got Limpkin and a handful of shorebirds.

There were also a few Southern Lapwings in there.

8. I finally saw an Ochre-breasted Antpitta in Costa Rica: “Long overdue” just about sums things up for this cute bird. I glimpsed one near Mindo, Ecuador some years ago but that was nothing compared to the wonderful, prolonged looks I got of my Costa Rican bird in Tapanti National Park. It’s good to see this one in Costa Rica because it might get split some day. Maybe not,  but since there is some evidence that their songs differ from South American birds, don’t be surprised if it turns into “Talamanca Antpitta”.

My Costa Rican Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

9. Laguna del Lagarto: I had heard great things about this place for many years but never made it there until 2011 because it was just off the beaten track. Well, I wish I had gone there sooner because the lodge is one of the best spots for bird photography in Costa Rica. Good birding overall, great service, accommodating prices, and the surrounding area has lots of potential. Most of the lowland rainforest species are still present, it’s a reliable site for Agami Heron, and the extensive forests in the area could even turn up a Harpy Eagle (a friend of mine actually had one there in 1998).

Did I mention that Laguna del Lagarto is good for bird photography?

10. Black-crowned Antpitta at Quebrada Gonzalez: OK, so this is kind of expected but the extreme coolness of this species always makes it a highlight. Antswarms earlier in the year were attended by this and other expected ant-following species.

The Black-crowned “Gnatpitta” occurs in these dense rainforests.

11. Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Agami Heron, Mississippi Kite, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Franklin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Willow Flycatcher, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Blue-headed Vireo, and Bobolink:  As mundane as most of these birds appear to be, they were all additions to my Costa Rica list and pushed it up to 710 species.

12. Getting more than 600 species for the year: I tried for the past two years and came close in 2010 but didn’t quite make it to 600 species for the year until 2011. As with any big year attempt, strategy played a key role in reaching my goal. Even though Costa Rica is small enough to make it very feasible to chase birds all over the country, work and family duties make such spontaneous pursuits an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, with enough visits to the right spots at the right time of year, I figured I had a chance of getting the big six zero zero. Hitting Tortuguero during migration was imperative to reaching 600 for the year as was looking for shorebirds at Chomes, visiting the catfish ponds for ducks, listening for nocturnal migrants, birding several times in major habitats, and doing the Veragua Christmas count. That last factor in particular was vital because it edged my list past the 600 mark. I had figured that if I didn’t reach my goal there, I would hit it during the Bosque del Rio Tigre count. HOWEVER, car trouble at the last minute prevented me from participating in a count at that most wonderful of birding sites so it was a darn good thing that I went to Veragua! The year isn’t over yet and my list stands at 607 for 2011. I would be very surprised if I picked up anything else for 2011 but since I already made it past 600, I’m not too concerned. As an aside, my year list would probably boast at least ten more bird species if I birded San Isidro del General, the Osa, and sites around San Vito.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012! I hope to share Costa Rican birds with you during the new year via this blog and in person!

Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Christmas Counts Introduction lowlands

The Veragua Christmas Count (part 2)

Sleep was almost as evasive as a Harpy Eagle or a dry day in Tortuguero National Park. This did not bode well for the long day of birding that awaited us in the Veragua count circle. Who knows how long we would have to hike in the humid Caribbean lowland heat? Not to mention, we also had to be as alert as hungry Bat Falcons to give an accurate count. Even though Christmas counts are more relaxed endeavors than the wild, wide-eyed craziness that happens on Big Days, you still need to give it your all and attempt to identify and count every single bird. You have to sort out the Social Flycatchers  from their Gray-capped relatives, recognize the steady, insect-like chipping notes of Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and give an accurate count of the Cattle Egrets that fly by in white, flapping droves.

Oh, and need I forget to mention, you also have to do that all day long. You can’t give up because it is your mission to count those birds until the time is up or until you drop from heat exhaustion. And even if you are lying there in a puddle of sweat with your birding brain frazzled from counting too many gulls or cowbirds while attempting to asses numbers of Great-tailed Grackles by merit of their circus-like madcap vocalizations, it is still your duty to croak out their names and numbers with rasping, over-exhausted breaths. You can’t give up on providing that precious annual data that may or may not be used to asses avian distribution at some later time. You just don’t know what might happen with the data but that’s why it’s so darn valuable (seriously!). Or, if you don’t want to sacrifice yourself in the name of birds, you could always take a nap at some later point in the day. That is a far better alternative than sleeping in because the biggest peak of bird activity happens when the sun begins its long climb into the tropical sky. Miss those golden hours and you forgo making any real assessment of birds in tropical forested habitats.

So, when the clock struck 3:30 a.m., all 60 something participants jumped out of bed, rushed to get ready, and like sleep-depraved robots, walked over to the cafeteria to fuel up with coffee and gallo pinto. This was a very important morning of birding and each of us had a specific route to cover. Bagged lunches were handed out, people met up with route leaders and counters boarded minivans. I found my two fellow counters for the day in one of the minivans. They were Duaro and Einor (spelling might be wrong but the pronunciation isn’t); two guys who lived near and counted raptors at Kekoldi. When the minivan filled up, the driver closed the doors, put the air on full, and we shivered in the Caribbean lowlands (amazingly) as we drove through the dark to our count circle routes. At 4:30 a.m., Duaro, Einor, and I were dropped off at the entrance to the “Brisas de la Jungla“, we wished the other Veragua participants good luck, and officially started the count!

Our ears were eager and attentive as we trudged uphill in the dark. Ignoring the pleas of roosters and dogs to be included on the list, we listened in expectation after belting out the barking call of Mottled Owl and the wail of Black and White Owl.  Nary a response from those nocturnal creatures  but we did pick up the de facto night bird- Common Pauraque. They earned the distinction of being our first species for the day as they called and flew off the road ahead of us.

Common Pauraques live up to their name when birding Costa Rica.

It was still dark when we reached our focal point for the dawn chorus. This auspicious spot was an overlook that took in a vista of forest edge, distant forested hillsides, and farmland; ideal for parrot flybys, raptors, and picking up the sounds of both forested and open habitats. As the sun began to color the sky, the heralds of the dawn chorus made it onto the list by merit of their vocalizations. Two Collared Forest-Falcons called in the distance, a Black and white Owl sounded off to end its “day”, and Woodcreepers sang a few songs. As is typical of tropical latitudes, the sun ran above the horizon and the birds just as quickly jumped out of their roost sites. Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers were more common than Tropical Kingbirds. A few Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers joined in with their dawn songs and a flock of Plain-colored Tanagers and several Blue Dacnis flew into the top of a nearby tree.

The pretty Blue Dacnis is common around Veragua.

Scanning with binoculars turned up a distant flyby flock of Pale-vented Pigeons and Olive-throated Parakeets zoomed on past. As Cattle Egrets started to fly inland from roosting sites near the coast, we were  kept busy counting them while also picking up a sole Black-striped Woodcreeper, two Central American Pygmy-Owls and common birds like Buff-throated Saltator, Blue-gray Tanager, and Passerini’s Tanager. The plaintive calls of Long-tailed Tyrants also made us aware of their presence and two Striped Cuckoos started to sound off but refused to show themselves (cowards!).

Oddly enough, we didn’t see any raptors from the overlook nor did we see as many parrots as expected. Snowy Cotinga was also evasive despite being in a perfect spot to watch for it. Nevertheless, it was a good place to start the count because we racked up around 80 species in two hours (many by sound). Once the dawn chorus calmed down, Duaro, Einor, and I walked uphill through old cocoa plantations and continued to see more birds. We ticked Western Slaty Antshrike, a handsome little Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk feeding on a lizard, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and a short fruiting tree filled with birds. There were at least a dozen Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, saltators, tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Montezuma Oropendola, Collared Aracaris, and other species feasting on the fruits.

The view from our first overlook.

Yes, it was as exciting as it sounds but even better was an extremely cooperative Central American Pygmy-Owl that came too close for binoculars after imitating its tooting song. Duaro actually took a National Geographicish video of the thing with his phone! I also got some pictures, including this one taken with the small zoom on my handheld point and shoot:

I swear, I felt like this beautiful little owl was going to use me as a perch!

Up on top of the hill, we reached some proper forest and oh did it look good for birds! Too bad we got there around 8:30 though; the requisite quiet time when birding in rainforest. We made our way to another overlook and, like the birds we were counting, rested for the next two hours. No need to walk around the forest between 9 and 11 unless you want to count insects or identify trees. Since that wasn’t part of our mission, we opted for hanging out on benches and scanning the forest canopy with the scope. Black and Turkey Vultures made their way onto the list but other than one, distant, Common Black Hawk, birds were absent from the scene. I bet that second overlook would be even better for starting the count because it overlooks intact forest. Maybe next year!

We figured our resting time was over when Purple-throated Fruitcrows started to call. They are pretty common in southeastern Costa Rica so I expected to get this one for the year on the day of the count. After a failed attempt to check out a lagoon hidden in the forest (due to it being inaccessible), we started walking downhill along one of the well-maintained trails at Brisas de la Jungla. The trail went through nice forest and old cocoa plantations with immense trees. It was pretty quiet during our time there but I bet it could turn up any number of rainforest species if you birded it during the early morning hours.

One of the trails at Brisas de la Jungla.

However, before venturing onto this trail, douse yourself with insect repellent. In fact, take a shower in the stuff until you reek of vicious chemicals. I didn’t and was literally chased out of the forest by a buzzing horde of mosquitoes. I must have gotten bit close to a hundred times and no matter how many I killed, they wouldn’t let up with their attack. Real blood sucking Ghengis Khaners in that place. I would definitely bird that trail again but not without an unhealthy supply of some seriously potent DEET spray.

Back at the safety of our dawn overlook, we continued counting from benches at that spot and this time, the cotingas were in the house! Granted, they were pretty far away, but visible enough to count them. A scan with the scope revealed at least 5 Snowy Cotingas perched in the canopy of forest on distant hillsides. This was around 3 p.m. and I bet you would have a very good chance of seeing them from the same spot at the same time of day. Look for a white speck against the green. Put the scope on it and it will either be a tityra or a Snowy Cotinga. You can also see these peace-doveish birds around Sarapiqui but they seem to be more numerous in southeastern Costa Rica (which makes sense since there is more intact forest).

That white thing is a Snowy Cotinga.

By this time of day, we didn’t get too much else of note other than one flyby Giant Cowbird. The decision was made to bird the road back down to the highway and maybe even check the river. Although we didn’t pick up anything new for the day, the walk back down was busy with common, rainforest edge species. Down by the river, we picked up Northern Waterthrush and got a surprise bird for the day: American Dipper! I didn’t expect this one because in Costa Rica, they typically occur at middle elevations and not at the 150 meters above sea level spot where we saw it.

Down by the river, we also got our last bird for the day, Blue-headed Parrot! I was especially excited about this bird because it also happened to be my 600th species for the year! I guess I was too excited and relieved to take a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Although they are still outnumbered by White-crowned Parrots in southeastern Costa Rica, a few Blue-headeds usually turn up during a day of birding in this area.

Finishing up the count.

Our Brisas de la Jungla count ended when the minivan picked us up at 5 p.m. The other participants told us tales of ticking kingfishers, egrets, Green-breasted Mangos, and other birds along the coast. We also shared and compared stories of our battles with biting bugs and agreed that this was one of the more mosquito-ridden areas of Costa Rica. The total number of species for our count territory was 122 and the number for the entire count was 408! This could make it the highest Costa Rican count for this year if not the highest species total for all 2011 Christmas counts!

The Veragua count  got so many species because the count circle includes habitats such as coastal areas, quality lowland rainforest, edge habitats, and middle elevation forests at 1,200 meters elevation. A few of the highlights from this year’s count include:

Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon: As an indication of the quality lowland forest around Veragua, 6 of this rare species were recorded!

Violaceous Quail-Dove: Although just one was found, the forested habitats in southeastern Costa Rica may be the most reliable area for this bird in the country. It’s still rare but I have also had luck with this bird in the past at the nearby Hitoy Cerere Reserve.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: Ten were recorded as they flew over a route these birds take most days of the year when commuting between highland forests and some unknown lowland site.

Owls: 7 species were recorded including a few Vermiculated Screech Owls, 5 Crested Owls, and 33 Central American Pygmy-Owls! Veragua and surroundings has got to be the easiest place to see this bird in Costa Rica.

Great Potoo: 9 recorded. Yep, this is a good area for this bird.

White-fronted Nunbird: 15 found in the count circle. This species is still regularly encountered in the area.

Spot-crowned Antvireo: 6 of this localized species were found.

Speckled Mourner: 2 found for the count. A rare bird!

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: 2 found, probably more in the area.

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: 83 counted. Like I mentioned, they are fairly common in the area!

Black-chested Jay: Only 3 this year. Last year, 43 were found, mostly at Brisas de la Jungla (we saw none!).

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Several of these. Veragua is the most reliable site for this species in Costa Rica.

It was quite the count. The area around Veragua is so good for birding simply because it still boasts sizeable areas of lowland forest. Many of the species that have disappeared or become rare around Sarapiqui are still fairly common around Veragua for this reason. It’s a bit off the regular birding circuit but it’s pretty easy to get to (3 and a half hours from San Jose on two-wheel drive roads). Brisas de la Jungla can be visited for birding although they charge $15 to do so and might even charge another $15 to walk their trail. Veragua is still being developed for birding and only offers very basic accommodation but they have fantastic trails, the birds, and excellent bilingual guides who know where to find them. You can only visit by reserving in advance. Their number in San Jose is 2296-5056. You can also write them at  info@veraguarainforest.com

I can’t wait to go back and bird in the area again albeit more prepared with insect repellent!

big year Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

The Veragua Rainforest Christmas Count (part one)

Not many birders make it down to southeastern Costa Rica. Although the towns of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Cahuita are major stops on the backpacker circuit, you don’t see many people walking around with roof prism, light-gathering optics. Birdwatchers are a rare sight in the southeast because they get their Caribbean lowland fix at La Selva and other sites in the Sarapiqui region. I can’t blame them for rarely straying south of Guapiles. I mean even if La Selva has lost a bunch of understory species, it still is the Caribbean lowland birding site that is closest to San Jose and fits nicely into Costa Rican birding itineraries that also include a visit to Arenal.

Since other birders rave about the Sarapiqui region in their trip reports, why go anywhere else for Caribbean lowland species? Well, not that you shouldn’t visit Sarapiqui, but just because you read about the area in trip reports doesn’t make it the only site in Costa Rica for Caribbean lowland birds. It’s good birding around there for sure but it’s not as wild as the forests near Limon. While the port city itself isn’t exactly a booming birding destination, there are several, little known sites in southeastern Costa Rica that offer up some pretty exciting birding. I have talked about the great birding around Manzanillo in the past and always yearn to get back to that birdy lowland village. This past weekend, I got the chance to check out another exciting southeastern site and similar to my feelings about Manzanillo, I can’t wait to go back!

The place is a fairly new ecotourism and research project called “The Veragua Rainforest” and if you can go birding there, by all means, do it! Since the place opened, local birders have been raving about it. Excellent lowland forest, Sulphur-rumped Tanagers, awesome mixed flocks, and big birding potential. When I got the chance to participate in this year’s Christmas count, I jumped at it like a hungry antpitta hopping after a big, juicy worm. Not only would I get the chance to check out Veragua, but I also had the opportunity to get 600 species for the year.

Plans were made, gear was packed, and on Friday morning, I drove on down with friends who were also participating in the count. Despite taking our time, stopping for coffee, running into road work, and doing a bit of birding on the way, it still took just 3 and a half hours to get there. If you drove straight to the place from San Jose and ran into little traffic, I bet it would be 2 and a half hours. As you leave the main highway to Limon, forested ridges and patchy habitat near the road can turn up a bunch of lowland species. Although the beautiful sunny morning resulted in little bird activity, on the day of the count, birds like Snowy Cotinga, Blue-headed Parrots, and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers were seen so that might give you an idea of the quality birding on the way in to Veragua.

Scene from the road to Veragua.

The road eventually went from asphalt to gravel and stones but it was still navageable by two-wheel drive vehicles. A guard greeted us upon arrival at the gate to Veragua.

After verifying that we were there for the count, we drove on in to one of the better birding sites in Costa Rica. The entrance road passed through lowland forest that had been selectively cut at some time in the past. At a glance, it doesn’t appear to have affected the birding too much and I bet spending a day on this road would turn up a wealth of lowland species.

How would you like to bird along this road?

Marcos, one of Veragua’s excellent guides, showed us around on Friday. While waiting to take the tram down to the Rainforest Giants Trail, we hung around their hummingbird garden and watched several Blue-chested Hummingbirds in action. It was nice to be in a place where this species outnumbered Rufous-taileds.

A Blue-chested Hummingbird posing for a picture.

While waiting for our tram ride down into a beautifully forested canyon, we actually added a new bird to the Veragua list in the form of a flyover Wood Stork. King Vulture also made an appearance but the White and Barred Hawks that are often seen from the tram were no-shows. Down at the bottom, a boardwalk passes beneath massive old growth trees, heliconia patches that sometimes hold White-tipped Sicklebill, and flanks a rushing river.

The excellent Rainforest Giants trail at Veragua.

Although we didn’t find Spot-crowned Antvireo (a localized species in Costa Rica) a canopy flock of medium-sized birds entertained us from above. Montezuma Oropendolas, Scarlet-rumped Caciques, and a couple of Black-striped Woodcreepers foraged high overhead with a Cinnamon Woodpecker, tityras, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and the star of the show, White-fronted Nunbird. While this orange-billed, clownish creature has disappeared from many areas in Costa Rica, it’s still fairly common at Veragua. A few lucky birders in our group also managed to see an Olive-backed Quail-Dove.

As the afternoon wore on, we took the tram back up to the top of the canyon and put the focus on mixed tanager flocks. A group of birds that frequents the trees around the reception was quickly located and several lucky birders got great looks at Sulphur-rumped Tanager. Incredibly, I missed that would be lifer despite looking in the same tree! I just happened to be scanning through several Plain-colored Tanagers when the Sulphur-rumped was seen and it took off before I could find it. Oh well, at least Rufous-winged Tanager was new for the year.

Other new 2011 species were Chestnut-collared Swift and a very obliging Great Potoo that entertained count participants by calling from a spotlit perch near the parking lot. It’s apparently there most nights and might take advantage of the insects and bats that come to a lit-up moth sheet. After dinner, we received information about our routes, got our boxed lunches, and also got the news about breakfast. It would be ready at 3:30 a.m. and most of us were scheduled to leave by 4. I would be hitting the Brisas de la Jungla site with two other guys. The plan was to drop us off at 4:30 a.m. and pick us up at 4:30 p.m. A long day of birding awaited and it might include grueling marches through the humid lowland heat and clouds of mosquitoes. I had to be prepared by getting a good night’s rest so I hit the sack by 7:45 and tried to sleep.

to be continued…

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

The Golden-eyed Double-striped Thick-Knee

Thick-Knee. What an odd name for a bird. I mean there aren’t any “Big-Ankles”, “Fat-toes”, or even a “Skinny-Wing” in the bird world. While there is a stint that is “Long-toed” it doesn’t cease to be a stint. The “thick-knee”, on the other hand, wasn’t even named after other members of the Burhinidae but since they tend to be erroneously branded as “curlews”, I suppose that’s a good thing.  OK, so thick-knees do have somewhat knobby legs but I think actually and officially calling them “thick-knee” was really pushing it. It makes them sound like avian rugby players or someone ready to give you a nasty kick (which I suppose a rugby player could easily do by accident).

Thick-knees become even scarier when you take into account their somewhat nocturnal behavior. If you thought it was tough to avoid those powerful legs during the day, imagine being bowled over by a flock of thick-knees while they played their own version of avian rubgy on the hot grasslands of Guanacaste! When dawn breaks, the cattle quiver with fright as they crouch in the swales. The unlucky ones bellow from the pain of bruised ribs- they just couldn’t move fast enough to escape the fury of a pack of thick-knees. Crested Caracaras and Black Vultures keep their distance and stay off the ground until the thick-knees have gone back to their zombie-like daytime demeanor. If they are lucky, they come across some trampled frogs, snakes, and other unlucky animals that couldn’t flee from the pounding fury of bare feet powered by particularly thick knees.

Yes, some strange things happen on those hot, Guanacaste nights and the locals know that they better keep away from the grassy plains when the moon is full and the thick-knees are yammering. Better to spend the evening in a local bar accompanied by a fridge full of Imperial beer. Better to taunt bulls in a ring and run like hell to avoid serious injury than whistle at a thick-knee to see what might happen. They say that you hear a faint whispering of wings until Whammo!, you have been bowled over by steel-like, powerfully stomping legs! At least that’s what the rumor is. Never mind that I heard it from a local fellow whose personal sasquatch-like scent nearly knocked me over like the kick of a thick-knee. Like a head-hitting blend of fermented manure, sweat, half-digested alcohol, and something that may have been old shoes, it wasn’t what one would call “perfume”. I could handle it though, by breathing through the mouth, reminding myself that I was hearing unique and incredibly interesting information, and trying to figure out if the odd, dry thing in his beard was an old, forgotten piece of food or a rattlesnake tail.

After picking out the words of his story from an unhealthy dose of spittle and moonshine fueled guffaws, I heard about the dangerous games of thick-knee rugby that take place on moon-lit nights. I learned how to avoid the onslaught if caught in an open grassy field when the thick-knees are doing their thing (take cover and play dead). I discovered that as beautiful as their eyes appear during the day, they can hypnotize you in a basilisk-like manner when a full moon is added to the mix. With quivering lip, he said that it was the golden eyes that he actually feared the most. Cold and reptilian, he said that they remind you of a much earlier time in our evolutionary history some 30 million years ago when our ancestors scampered for their lives from big, hungry birds.

Gaze into my golden eye…

So, the moral of the story is, don’t go wandering around at night on the plains of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Keep to the roads and you will be fine but venture into the tall dry grass and you just might have a close, nocturnal encounter with a thick-knee. Or, you might also meet a Tropical Rattlesnake or get infested with a few thousand chiggers so better to keep to the road!

To safely see a thick-knee and peer into their wonderful, huge, golden orbs, take the mangrove boat tour at Carara, look for them on the lower parts of the Cerro Lodge road, and keep an eye out for them in wet swales of grasslands anywhere in Guanacaste.