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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Fine Spring Day of Birding Costa Rica at Chomes

North American birders who are in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks won’t be going to the Chomes shrimp ponds. The reasoning is straightforward: Why watch shorebirds that you can see at home when you have tropical forests replete with flocks of glittering tanagers, sneaky antbirds, woodcreepers, and dozens of interesting flycatchers at your disposal? However, birders who reside outside of the western hemisphere would be well advised to make a trip to Chomes. It’s the best shorebird hotspot in Costa Rica, access is free and rather easy (a boon in a country where national parks and reserves seem not to want to cater so much to birders-strange but true) and the drive in is great for dry forest species.

Although I’m originally from North America, I love going to Chomes because I don’t get too many other chances to see shorebirds, terns, and the like. In Costa Rica, sites for seeing big concentrations of waterbirds are rather few in number and/or hard to access, especially around the Gulf of Nicoya. A sea kayak would be the best way to survey those waders and web-footed birds that frequent the estuary of the Tempisque River but at least we have Chomes to watch them from solid ground.

Two or so weeks ago, Susan Blank and I went to Chomes to see if any shorebirds were around and the trip did not disappoint. Despite not arriving at optimal high tide time, we still managed views of several shorebirds, saw some terns, and also connected with a few mangrove specialties. As usual, it was tough not to stop on the way in to hear and see the healthy variety of dry forest species that occur.

Shorebirds were our goal but they were trumped by four, hefty Yellow-naped Parrots.

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Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon, awesome parrots of the dry forest.

As usual, these smart birds watched us with curious, wary eyes while giving their distinctive calls.

Giving a pygmy-owl whistle also turned up White-lored Gnatcatcher,

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White-lored Gnatcatcher have dark lores at this time of the year while Tropicals have white lores (yes, it is confusing).

and Brown-crested Flycatcher. We also heard at least one Nutting’s but Brown-cresteds were much more common and seem to outnumber Nutting’s in more open areas.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher was fearless.

Moving on, we reached the village of Chomes in 10-15 minutes and drove on in to the shrimp pond area using the public access road at the southeast corner of the village. You can also go in through the front gate to the ponds if it is open but it’s easier to just use that access road. It doesn’t look like much but to take it, just head to the very southeast corner of the village and follow the dirt road towards the coast.

As soon as we reached the first pond, we were greeted by the songs of Red-winged Blackbird, and the sights and sounds of Black-bellied Plovers. Many of the plovers were in breeding plumage and were the most common shorebird seen on that day (we might have seen 150 or so)

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Chomes habitat.
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We also saw our first of many Wilson's Plovers.

Continuing on through the complex of shallow ponds, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and other expected wading birds while being entertained by the constant songs of White-collared Seedeaters, and the chattering of White-fronted Parrots.

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Quite a few White Ibis were around.
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Along with many Black-necked Stilts.

At the larger, back ponds, a fair number of shorebirds were present, including two of our better birds for the day; Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover. Pecs are expected in Costa Rica if you visit the right habitat at the right time of the year but since you have to catch them during migration, they were a nice find.  The plover passes through the country but is by no means a common, expected sight. In fact, these were my first for Costa Rica so it was pretty exciting to see them!

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Pectoral Sandpipers look kind of like a Bigfoot Least Sandpiper.
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American Golden Plover

Other shorebirds included Willet, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Plover (just one), and Wilson’s Plover. Many of these were already foraging on the extensive mudflats as the tide went out so I am sure that we missed some good birds. Scanning the flats revealed many a distant wader and an enticing group of terns and gulls whose identity was kept a secret by heat waves that roasted the area.

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Distant mud flats at Chomes.
birding Costa Rica
A much closer Black-bellied Plover.

Locals searched for clams and we searched for shorebirds before cooling off in the air-conditioned car and driving down a mangrove lined track to see what else we could turn up. At one stop, we got more great looks at Brown-crested Flycatchers, saw a Streaked Flycatcher, and got wonderful, close looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Warblers, and Mangrove Vireo.

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A Mangrove Yellow Warbler trying to crouch behind mangrove foliage.
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Mangroves vireos really blend in to the light gray branches of their mangrove habitat.

Since we seemed close enough to the Colorado salt ponds and the Amistad bridge, we decided to give those sites a shot. As it turned out, although those places would be a quick ten minute flight for a Least Sandpiper, they end up being an hour’s drive if you attempt to go the shortest route. Despite the scenery along the way, you will save a lot of time by heading back out to the highway and making a turn-off to reach Colorado rather than taking rough roads that pass through a few villages.  Once you get to Colorado, don’t expect signs for anything. Just take the main road west through the village and watch for the school on the left. Immediately after that school, follow the main road and take a left (south), a right, and then another left to head in to the salt pond area (sounds obscure but once you are there, it will hopefully make sense).

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What the salt ponds sort of look like.

As with other visits to this shorebird site, I didn’t see very many birds but did pick up a couple of good ones. Birds also come and go so it pays to keep scanning the ponds. This was reflected by our latest experience because after driving back in and seeing very little, we ran into a nice flock of shorebirds on the way out that consisted of more than a dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, two Pectoral Sandpipers, and one beautiful, breeding plumaged female Wilson’s Phalarope. Since that needle-billed bird was a second new addition to my Costa Rican list, our birding day was turning out to be a productive, memorable day indeed. Our luck stopped there, however, because there were almost no birds at mud flats below the Amistad Bridge, and we couldn’t find a way to access the mangroves in search of Clapper Rail.

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A bad yet identifiable picture of a Wilson's Phalarope.

As always, I wish I could bird Chomes more often because you can bet that rare birds show up there on a regular basis, there’s just not enough people checking the place to find them.

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