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Birding Costa Rica

Celebrating the Global Big Day in Costa Rica

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is pretty good about coming up with ideas for research and bird conservation. Well, no, more like fantastic when it comes to many things avian and the latest endeavor was one heck of a successful ride. Known as the Global Big Day, it started out as an idea for a Big Day in Panama done by Team Sapsucker and one of the head guides from the Canopy Tower family, Carlos Bethancourt. But why do just one Big day when other birders can be encouraged to do the same and enter their results into eBird? Maybe enough birders around the world would participate to identify 4,000 species in one calendar day? Maybe the lab could also raise much needed funds for avian research and conservation?

All that birders had to do was go birding on May 9th and submit the results to eBird. They could just count the birds in the backyard, spend a morning at a favorite patch, or go for broke on a 24 hour birding marathon. As befits their modus operandi, Team Sapsucker of course went for the latter option and ended up with a whopping 320 species! Not only was this a new Big Day record for Panama, but it was also one of the highest Big Day totals ever, and the highest species count for the Global Big Day. But, they weren’t the only people out watching birds on May 9th, 2015. According to eBird, more than 13,000 people heeded the call to watch birds and submit their results, and instead of 4,000 species, nearly 6,000 species have been identified!

In Costa Rica, birders in most parts of the country participated, including a team of guides that identified 308 species on a route that went from Braulio Carrillo and La Selva up and over the mountains to Carara. Although I wish I could say that Susan Blank and I broke 300 species, that goal was made impossible by inclement weather. If it weren’t for a full night and morning of light wind and varying amounts of rain, I daresay that it is very likely that we would have surpassed 300 species by the end of the day because despite the very diminished dawn chorus, we still finished with 230 species.

This Keel-billed Toucan made it onto our list.

Although we briefly pondered the notion of leaving at eleven pm to try for nightbirds en route to Pocosol, it seemed more logical (and comfortable) to head to Pocosol the day before for a bit of scouting and good night’s sleep. After all, we planned on nightbirding at Pocosol anyways and it’s a good spot for Mottled, Crested, Spectacled, and Black and White Owl. During that bit of scouting, we discovered that a tiny wetland in San Ramon was even tinier and almost bereft of birds, found a carcass with a King Vulture right on our route, and saw that yes, indeed, the northern road to Pocosol passed through a promising mix of habitats that included second growth, patches of lower elevation forest, and offered views of forested hillsides. That birdy mix was just what I had hoped for because it would give us a chance at a wide variety of edge species and lowland birds that would be tough to encounter elsewhere on our route. The views of the hillsides also gave us a chance at raptors and other canopy species (as in..ahem..a cotinga or two).

Nice forest on the way in to Pocosol.

At Pocosol itself, the station was typically birdy with two species of oropendolas coming and going, and Thicket Antpittas calling from the understory. Since it was about 5 pm, we put down the binocs, went over the plan for the following day, ate dinner, and went to bed early. This is how May 9th went:

3 am: No worries about missing any birds that might have to called at midnight because nothing with feathers was calling at 3 am. There was a light wind, misty weather, and the owls were in quiet mode. Nevertheless, we got ready and hiked on a trail back to a section of beautiful primary forest. The wet weather made it a great night for frogs but if any cuckoos were migrating overhead, their calls were drowned out by the a windy, dripping canopy.

5 am to 8:30 am: The sky was getting slightly brighter and a few birds started to vocalize. The wind and rain made it tough to hear them but I don’t think a whole lot of birds were vocalizing anyways. We ticked Rufous Motmot, Crested Guan, Golden-crowned Warbler, Mealy Parrot, and a few others but not a single woodcreeper nor many other deep forest species I had hoped to get. I realized that if the weather didn’t improve, we would be better off leaving Pocosol early to try for many of the same birds on the road to Manuel Brenes. We would certainly miss several dawn chorus species but we didn’t have much of a choice. We hiked back to the station, picking up a few more birds en route, including Black-headed Antthrush and Dull-mantled Antbird, and then picked up Great Curassow and a couple other birds on the first part of the Ridge Trail. Then, we ate breakfast as quickly as we could and started driving back out to the main road.

Rainy weather at Pocosol.

8:30 am to 10:00 am: Sometime during breakfast, the light rain had turned into a soaking downpour in misty surroundings. Pretty awful for birding and it stayed that way almost out to the main road. We saw very few birds but did at least pick up Eastern Kingbird where we had hoped and got a White Hawk. The rain dimished as we drove up the road and quick stops picked up Olive-throated Parakeet, as well as a few other species (but minus the Tropical Mockingbird we had seen the day before!).

10:00 am to 11:00 am: I think this is when we birded Lands in Love and since it was right when the rain stopped, we got a bunch of birds. Since we stuck to the loop road, most were second growth species but we did alright given the bad start and weather.

11:00 am to 12:30 pm: We picked up a few targets at a small lake and marsh, but the King Vulture was absent and other targets refused to call. Back on the Manuel Brenes road, though, we did pretty good and a couple of mixed flocks came through with most of our target tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Purple-crowned Fairy, Northern Schiffornis, Nightingale Wren, and even got a surprise Snowcap! This is the first time I have seen this species on that road.

It was nice to have this small marsh on the route.
Our Snowcap.

12:30 pm to 3:30 pm: After the foothill forests of the Manuel Brenes road, we zipped uphill and stopped at the Cocora Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden. I had hoped that this spot would result in several cloud forest birds and it came through with flying colors. Although their primary forest is edged by cultivations on both sides, the back of the forest does connect to the cloud forests of Nectandra and the Monteverde forest complex. I hope to do a morning survey there sometime to better assess the avian potential. On Saturday, a brief 30 minute visit resulted in several targets including Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, and several other species. The hummingbird action wasn’t too impressive but we still picked up Violet Sabrewing and a couple other hummingbirds.

Crowned Woodnymph was in the garden.

After Cocora, we picked up some common roadside birds like Eastern Meadowlark and Rufous-collared Sparrow, and made a quick stop in moist forest to get Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wren, and a couple others. While driving through San Ramon, we got our hoped for flyby Crimson-fronted Parakeets, then headed downhill towards Puntarenas and Chomes. Road construction stopped us for about 15 minutes and despite taking advantage of the stop and trying for Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin, and a few others, the unexpected break was birdless. By 3:30,  we made it to open and dry forest habitats on the road to Chomes.

3:30 pm to 4:30 pm: The road to Chomes was much drier than normal and there weren’t as many birds but we still managed several targets. A couple of stops in riparian zones were far too quiet and didn’t turn up the Black-headed Trogons, Olive Sparrow, and a few other species that we usually get, but we did pick up Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Streak-backed Oriole, and several other species. A stop in the open fields also worked out for the thick-knee, a distant Harris’s Hawk, our only Cliff Swallow for the day, our only Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and some other species.

4:30 pm to 6:00 pm: At Chomes, you never know what is going to show but there’s always something good. Shorebird numbers were  fairly impressive but diversity was fairly low compared to other days. Nevertheless, the 12 species of shorebirds were a welcome addition along with White Ibis, Wood Stork, herons, and a few other aquatic species, a highlight being a group of Black Terns that flew in from the ocean. Just before dusk, we also got lucky with a few mangrove species, and a group of Spot-bellied Bobwhites. In fact, we continued to pick up one new species after another right until dark while watching 200 plus White-fronted Parrots flying over the mangroves. It was a memorable way to end a memorable day and although we made a brief attempt for Pacific Screech-Owl and a few other night birds, nothing called back and we called it a day by 7 pm.

Although it was downright infuriating to be rained out for the dawn chorus and the most productive part of the day, the fact that we still identified 230 species with almost no night birding and very little scouting showed that this route could definitely break the world record when wintering species are around, with more scouting, and with an obligatory lack of rain at dawn. Looking forward to the next Global Big Day! In the meantime, it’s about time that we did a Costa Rican Bird Race…

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