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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

A Rundown of a Big Day in Costa Rica (or Getting and Missing Birds part Dos)

Last weekend came and went like a flash. Not this past weekend but the weekend before. Although I did see a bunch of high-flying Chestnut-collared Swifts foraging above the house with a light phase Short-tailed Hawk taking to the thermals beneath them, that was a muuuuch more relaxed experience than the last Saturday of March and the first Sunday of April. You see, the Big Day actually commenced on that Saturday and started several hours before it officially started. Before you feel like quoting Arnold Drummond by saying, “What you talking about Willis?!” (RIP Garry Coleman), allow me to explain.

If you want to get serious about doing a Big Day and break some birding record, you have to get crazy with the planning and preparations. I had already planned everything out at least a week prior to the Big Day but still needed to get busy with the preparations. This meant buying supplies for the day such as a large bottle of  Coca Cola (caffeine and sugar are a Big Day birders best friend), snacks galore, and making a pizza. Yes, that’s right, making a pizza and since I make the dough, that tacks on 2 hours to the equation. Homemade Pizza is my lembas (if you read Tolkien, you know what I mean) and is therefore an essential for a long day of birding. Call me a pizza snob if you will but I forgo ordering it in Costa Rica because I grew up with pizza from western New York. That’s the way I like it so that’s pretty much the way I make it. Nor do I just bake any old pizza for a Big Day. It has to be a bready, focaccia-like pizza to stand up to the rigors of the days and retain its flavor. Perhaps even more important, this way, it’s also easy to just grab and eat cold.

So, due to having to drop my daughter off for a birthday party in another town, I made the dough in the morning, baked the pizza in the afternoon, and rushed off to San Ramon to pick up team mate Juan Diego Vargas but before then, I packed the other essentials into my pack: binoculars, scope, charged camera, charged digital recorder and microphone, insect repellent, sunblock, gatorade drinks, and water. The route and bird lists were printed. I couldn’t think of any other vocalizations to brush up on. I was ready to hear a Black-billed Cuckoo chuckle from the night sky and tick it off. In other words, I was ready to rock and roll.

After coming back with Juan Diego and talking about the recent rare sighting of American Bittern in inaccessible wetlands near the Nicaraguan border, we met up with Susan Blank at my house. Susan and her husband own a couple of golf shops and set up golf tours in Costa Rica and elsewhere and they excel at that but what Susan is perhaps even better at is driving the twisty roads of Costa Rica. Growing up in the countryside of southern Pennsylvania has also given her excellent bird-spotting abilities and these would be put to the test on Sunday.

After saying goodbye to my wife and eating a few slices of good luck pizza, off we went around the block to start out Big Day at 7:15 pm.  A Common Pauraque quickly became our first species but the Tropical Screech Owls refused to play and the star-lit skies were bereft of migrants so we moved on to higher elevations. At our third stop, the air was still and that helped convince a Mottled Owl to respond to an imitation of its barking “song”. It responded with a lackluster, low key “hoot” but we caught the sound so ticked off it went for bird number two (don’t worry, I won’t do this for the other 259 species).

Further nighttime stops were a bust and we were surprised because Bare-shanked Screech Owls and Dusky Nightjars are usually pretty good at responding. Whether it was due to the time of the year or just bad luck, we didn’t get any other owls at night.

We got to El Gavilan, our spot for the night, around 9 pm and had this wonderful Caribbean lowland birding site all to ourselves. Short-tailed Nighthawk made it onto the list, we listened for a bit longer, and then hit the sack. Thanks to Rodolfo, the night watchman, we had coffee at 4:30 am shortly after waking up and got caffeinated while listening to the night sky. No migrants, no Spectacled Owl, no Green Ibis and it was time to move on. Night birding was not being productive! We drove the two kilometers to the edge of the La Selva property and listened for more owls as the multitude of Clay-colored Robins filled the air with their dawn songs. A Central American Pygmy -Owl made it onto the list (success!) but no other Strigiformes vocalized.

The very birdy yard at El Gavilan. We didn’t have time to hit this spot during the morning birding rush even though it makes for easy, excellent Caribbean lowland birding.

As the sky began to lighten, we rushed over to the E Tigre fields for dawn. I picked this spot as a pre-dawn stop in the hopes of getting rare marsh birds, Green Ibis, hearing migrants, and maybe picking up an owl or two. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad choice because none of the above complied. Nevertheless, dawn came fast and furious as it always does in the tropics and this was when the true Big Day craziness commenced.

When everything starts to sing at the same time, you hardly know where to begin. You just have to put yourself into a Zen-like mindset and do one song at a time. If you know your vocalizations well, you can just call off birds as soon as they start and this is the real way to do it as it helps with the one true bane of Big Days- time. The faster you can call the birds, the more likely you will get more so the next twenty minutes went something like this:

“Great Antshrike! Got it?”



“Lineated Woodpecker”

“Laughing Falcon”

” I got a pair of kites in the distance”

“Giant Cowbird over the horizon!”

“Got it”

“Did you get the Laughing Falcon?”

“Yes, did you get the Streak-headed Woodcreeper?”

“Yes, keep looking for the Nicaraguan Seed Finch!”

Kiskadees were sounding off, the Clay-coloreds were trying to drown out other, more important species, and flock after flock of Bronzed Cowbirds made us realize just how darn common those sneaky Icterids were. It was a good thing we checked the cowbirds though because one trio of blackbirds turned out to be a group of  Shinys and we picked up a deep chested, undulating Giant. It bordered on chaos and it didn’t help that the rails refused to call but we at least got one White-throated Crake and found our Nicaraguan Seed-Finch so we departed from the break of dawn site feeling hopeful about the day.

It was a quick five minute drive over to the edge of the La Selva property where we hoped to pick up a wealth of other “dawn birds”. We needed stuff like motmots, tinamous, wrens, and as many birds to sing as possible. Although we couldn’t count on a host of understory species that have become rare at or have disappeared from La Selva, I figured that it would still be productive enough for a 15 minute stop. As is promised by the early hour, the avian action was fast and furious and we got both tityras,  two Motmots, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, White-ringed Flycatcher (our only spot for that one!), and Cinnamon Woodpecker among others. The Fasciated Antshrikes and Long-tailed Tyrants that are usually recorded there were no shows though and the tyrant ended up being one of the big misses on our Big Day.

A Long-tailed Tyrant from another day.

I got this Fasciated Antshrike a week after the count at the exact same spot where we tried for it in vain.

Next on the list of morning sites was a quick stop at the Chilamate bridge followed by a jaunt over a rocky road to a good patch of forest that was bound to yield some nice additions. The bridge was checked for kingfishers, tiger-herons, and Sunbittern but the only things we ended up pulling out of there were a Black Phoebe and Spotted Sandpiper. Oh well, it was on to the patch of forest as we listened and looked in vain for flyby Great Green Macaw and Long-tailed Tyrants. Our first Northern Jacana was sighted by a stream and we picked up birds shortly after arriving at the forest. Although Black-striped Woodcreeper and Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant were absent, we got both White-whiskered and White-necked Puffbirds, a Black-throated Trogon that came in close to stare at us, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Green Honeycreeper, Rufous Mourner, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and a few other species in just 15 minutes. In retrospect, we probably should have started the Big Day at that spot but the clock was ticking and there was no time for regrets so we drove off to Tirimbina Rainforest for a last chance at Caribbean lowland rainforest birds.

By the time we got to Tirimbina, the height of the morning action was slowing down and according to schedule, we should have already hit the road for Virgen del Socorro. With so many birds till possible though, we decided to put in an hour at Tirimbina. The walk in gave us Short-tailed Hawk, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Wood Thrush and Swainson’s Thrushes that were feeding on fruiting shrubs. After paying a resident-discounted entrance fee, we headed out over the metal bridge that crosses the Sarapiqui, stopping in the middle to look for birds. It was getting pretty quiet but the trails through the excellent rainforests atTirimbina were bound to give us some birds. Given that we were there during the mid-morning lull, we did pretty darn good. Western Slaty Antshrike found its way into the list along with Red-capped Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and two of our best birds for the day; Black Hawk Eagle and Ornate Hawk Eagle. As hawk eagles tend to do, both started calling from high in the sky and thus earned treasured spots on our list.

Birding from a canopy bridge at Tirimbina.

Western Slaty Antshrike from Tirimbina. This place might even be a better choice than La Selva for birding the Caribbean lowlands.

Our hoped for mixed flock never appeared and it was time to go so we jumped back into the car and traded the lowlands for the middle elevation forests of Virgen del Socorro. We got there by about 11:30 after a quick stop at a nearly birdless lagoon that nevertheless gave up Slaty Spinetail and both yellowthroats. Despite a windstorm of spishing, the White-collared Seedeaters refused to show like they did on days before and after the count. A similar thing happened with White Hawk at Virgen del Socorro but we at least picked up a bunch of other birds. Barred Hawk called as it soared above the canyon. Standard species like Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, Stripe-breasted Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren,and Tufted Flycatcher quickly made their way into the list as did goodies like Nightingale Wren, Green Thorntail, Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush, Plain Xenops, and Smoky-brown Woodpecker.

The good forests on the other side  of the river also treated us well with Brown Violetear, several tanagers (including beauties like Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Emerald), Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Overall, a pretty productive stop of an hour or so. Despite no White Hawk, we left Virgen del Socorro, made a quick stop at Cinchona to pick up Coppery-headed Emerald and miss White-bellied Mountain Gem before continuing uphill. On the way, Sooty-faced Finch called, we got the promised Torrent Tyrannulet at the La Paz waterfall, and a quick stop turned up a Golden-olive Woodpecker. As we neared the top of the road at Varablanca, rain was pouring down and thus things did not bode well for highland species around there and at Poas.

There’s a Torrent Tyrannulet somewhere near that waterfall.

The rain only became worse when we stopped at the Volcan Restaurant. After ticking Volcano Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem from inside the car, we bravely stepped out into the rain to check the riparian zone there that can be great for a number of species. After a minute of soaking rain and no birds, we got back into the car and wondered if we should just write off Poas altogether. Hoping to get above the rain and knowing that most birds higher up would be new and impossible elsewhere, we drove up to the entrance of the national park. Unfortunately, the rainclouds were higher than that and the water kept on falling so we weren’t going to get as many species as we probably would have on Poas. We still got some good ones though and these included species like Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Barred Parakeet.

We just as quickly drove back downslope hoping that the rain was restricted to the highlands. As we headed through the coffee plantations, rain kept us from hearing things like Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush or Rufous-capped Warbler but it luckily stopped before reaching Alajuela. From there, we made our way to the highway that heads to the coast and were happy to see sunny conditions on the drive down. By this time though, four o’clock was fast approaching , we were an hour and a half behind schedule, and we were confronted with a painful decision. Time dictated that we had to choose between either going for more rainforest species and Carara specialties on the Bijagual road, or looking for dry forest birds and waterbirds in the estuary and mangroves at Guacalillo. We opted for the Bijagual road along with a quick visit to a dry forest spot and pretty much wrote off everything from Anhinga to Common Black Hawk and herons unless we could get lucky with aquatic species hanging out at the crocodile bridge.

As we raced to the Guacimo Road (our dry forest spot), road birding was good with a Turquoise-browed Motmot perched on a wire, calling Stripe-headed Sparrows, and a few others for the list. On the Guacimo Road, the usual Common Ground and Inca Doves were absent but we did good with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Plain-capped Starthroat, Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, and a few other much needed species. No magpie jay and we still needed Brown Jay (!) but it was time to finish up the daylight at the Bijagual Road.

White-lored Gnatcatchers are good about coming in to pygmy owl calls.

That road passes next to the boundary of Carara National Park and is typically great birding in the late afternoon. Fortunately for us, the place worked like a charm and yielded almost every expected species like clockwork! Pygmy-owl whistling called in a Painted Bunting, Greenish Elaenia, and a few other species but we got most by their calls. One after another, we ticked off Northern Bentbill, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous and White, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-naped, and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, Scarlet Macaw, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, Gray-headed Tanager, Little Tinamou, Long-billed Gnatwren, Long-tailed Manakin, Orange-collared Manakin, and at least a few more to finish off the day including our much expected Brown Jay. It was birding at its best and probably our luckiest stop for the day.

As dusk approached, we made one last stop at the crocodile bridge to hope for waterbirds but other than picking up Lesser Nighthawk and Black-necked Stilt, that last stop was a bust. As night fell, we decided to make another last ditch effort for a few more birds (as is tradition on a Big Day) and drove past the village of Tarcoles to look for things like Boat-billed Heron and owls. Although the boat-billeds had already flown the coupe, we spotlighted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron for our final and 26oth species of the day. No owls were calling, the place felt like a furnace, exhaustion was creeping in, and it was time to go home.

The drive back up to the Central Valley was a quick one and our Big Day had come to its end. Rain, few migrants, and going off schedule had conspired to keep us from breaking any records but it was still one heck of a fantastic day for birding in Costa Rica that spanned habitats ranging from lowland rainforests on both slopes to dry forest, middle elevation cloud forests, temperate zone rain forests, fields, and coffee plantations. It’s hard to say what our best or most unexpected bird was but it might be a toss up between Barred Parakeet and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.  Biggest misses were too many waterbirds, Inca Dove (a common, easy to see species), the aforementioned tyrant, Great Tinamou (vocal and usually recorded), Barred Antshrike (almost always recorded!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

I now have a better strategy though and can’t wait until March 2013 for the record-breaking Big Day.

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